As the Omicron coronavirus spreads in southern Africa and pops up in countries around the world, scientists are anxiously watching a battle that may determine the future of the pandemic. Can Delta's newest competitor to the world-dominating Delta overthrow it?
Some scientists, poring over data from South Africa and the United Kingdom, suggest that Omicron could emerge the victor.
"It's still early days, but increasingly, data is starting to trickle in, indicating that Omicron is likely to outperform Delta in many, if not all, places," said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors the variables for a Harvard-led research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.
But others said Monday it was too early to know how likely Omicron would spread more efficiently than Delta or, if it does, how quickly it could take over.
"Especially here in the US, where we are seeing significant spikes in the delta, I think if Omicron will replace it, we will know in about two weeks," said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Many critical questions about Omicron remain unanswered, including whether the virus causes milder or more severe illness and how much it evades immunity from past Covid-19 diseases or vaccines.
On the issue of diffusion, scientists point to what is happening in South Africa, where Omicron was first detected. Omicron's speed to infect people and achieve near dominance in South Africa worries health experts that the country is at the beginning of a new wave that could overwhelm hospitals.
The new variant quickly moved South Africa from a period of low transmission, averaging fewer than 200 new cases per day in mid-November, to more than 16,000 cases per day over the weekend. According to experts, Omicron is responsible for more than 90% of new cases in Gauteng province, the epicenter of the new wave. The new variant is rapidly spreading and achieved dominance in the other eight South African provinces.
"The virus is spreading with extraordinary speed," said Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute. “If you look at the slopes of this wave that we are on right now, it is a steeper slope than the first three waves that South Africa went through. This suggests that it is spreading rapidly and therefore may be a highly transmittable virus. "
But Hanekom, who is also co-chair of the Covid-19 Variables Research Consortium in South Africa, said that South Africa had such a low number of delta cases when Omicron emerged, "I don't think we can say" that it out-competed Delta.
Scientists say it is unclear if Omicron will behave the same way in other countries as it does in South Africa. Lemieux said there are already some clues as to how it should act; In places like the UK, which do a lot of genomic sequencing, he said, "we are seeing what appears to be an indication of the exponential rise of an omicron over a delta."
In the United States, as in the rest of the world, he said, "there is still a lot of uncertainty." "But when you put the raw data together, you start to see a consistent picture emerge: Omicron is already here and based on what we have seen in South Africa, it is likely to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks and months and it is likely to cause a significant increase in the number of cases. "
What that could mean for public health is still unclear. Hanekom said early data from South Africa shows that infection rates again with Omicron are much higher than previous variants, suggesting that the virus escapes immunity to some degree. He also shows that the virus appears to infect young people, most of whom are not vaccinated, and most cases in hospitals have been relatively mild.
But Binnicker said things could play out differently in other parts of the world or in different groups of patients. "It will be really interesting to see what happens when more infections occur in the elderly or in those with underlying health problems," he said. "What’s the outcome in those patients?”
As the world awaits answers, scientists suggest that people do everything possible to protect themselves.
We want to make sure that people have the highest possible immunity from vaccination as possible. "If people are not vaccinated, they should get vaccinated," Lemieux said. "If people are eligible for boosters, they should get boosters and then do all the other things that we know are effective in reducing transmission: hiding, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings indoors, particularly without masks.”
Source: Hindustan Times
Also Read: SoftBank to invest $50 mn in SaaS company SenseHQ