The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is the new boogieman that has popped up in every news feed recently. A lot of panic has surrounded the variant, and the World Health Organization declared it a “variant of concern” on Friday. But what do we really know about it? In the 2009 film The Pink Panther 2, lead character Jacques Clouseau says, “Let me bring you up to speed… we know nothing. You are now up to speed,” and that is really where we are. The few details we do have actually put us at ease more than anything. Well, for now, at least.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution met today to review what is known about the #COVID19 variant B.1.1.529.
They advised WHO that it should be designated a Variant of Concern.
WHO has named it Omicron, in line with naming protocols https://t.co/bSbVas9yds pic.twitter.com/Gev1zIt1Ek
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 26, 2021
What is the Omicron variant?
The Omicron variant is a form of coronavirus known as B.1.1.529 and was discovered in South Africa on Nov. 18 by Dr. Angelique Coetzee who is chair of the South African Medical Association, according to Reuters. Coetzee discovered the variant when she noticed a number of patients coming in with similar symptoms that tested positive for coronavirus and yet differed from the Delta variant. It was this pattern that led her to the conclusion that something was different.
What are the symptoms of Omicron?
While it is still too early for officially to say anything about the symptoms of the Omicron variant, what we can say for now is that they have been relatively mild compared to Delta. Dr. Coetzee stated that her patients reported being very fatigued with body aches and headaches, according to Reuters.
Most patients do not even lose their sense of taste or smell and might acquire a slight cough, reports the New York Times.
What makes Omicron different from the other variants?
In a word: mutations. The “variant did surprise us, it has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected,” said Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa in a press briefing.
The professor stated that the variant has 50 mutations, 30 of which are on the spike protein. The spike protein is the part of the virus that penetrates the host cell and introduces the infection.
The receptor-binding domain of Omicron—the part that connects to the host cell—has 10 mutations. To put that into perspective, Delta only has two.
So while we are not seeing widespread infections from this variant as we have with others in the past—with possible exception to South Africa—it has all the characteristics of being highly transmissible.
So how concerned should we be with this variant? Just about as concerned as we have been with any other variant. It is important to be smart and take everything seriously… but not to the point of panic. The good news is that, for now, this variant seems to be very mild. At this time, no deaths have been reported.
There have been cases reported in the UK and even as close as Canada, however, there have been no official cases reported in the U.S. Of course, that has not stopped the mainstream media from reporting that there might be undetected cases in the U.S.!! (Cue suspense music.)
What the evidence suggests so far is that this particular variant is very mild, especially when compared to Delta. And yes, it is true that all this is subject to change at any time, but until more evidence emerges, it is important to remain calm, act responsibly, and withhold judgment on anything uncertain.