Coronavirus transformations: Omicron variant sets the world on alert

Omicron causes COVID-19, with mild to moderate symptoms in many patients. Only in a small number of cases does the disease become complicated and may require intensive care or cause death.

Coronavirus transformations: Omicron variant sets the world on alert
Omicron variant sets the world on alert. Photo by Jeremy Bezanger / Unsplash

As the world enters the third year of the pandemic, with a complex epidemiological situation, Omicron is once again intensifying the problems we have as a society to carry out important activities and to stay healthy. We thought that the COVID-19 pandemic was already ending, and we are already facing this other SARS-CoV-2 variant, fortunately, it has a lower virulence capacity, assures Samuel Ponce de León, head of the University Commission for the Attention of the Coronavirus Emergency.

Of the SARS-CoV-2 variants (the original Wuhan, Alpha in the UK, and Delta), Omicron has an extraordinarily efficient transmission capacity. It can be as transmissible as measles, which is the virus recognized as the most contagious pathogen. Fortunately, Omicron causes COVID-19 with mild to moderate symptoms in many patients, and only in a small number of cases does it become complicated and may require intensive care or cause death.

Omicron, clarifies the UNAM researcher, is capable of infecting those people who are vaccinated and have "their full schedule", and even a third booster dose. In general, in these people, the infection by Omicron is "very benign or can even go unnoticed". However, the infection can be maintained and continue through infected persons. As a consequence of the great social mobility due to vacations, in the next weeks or days, there will be a greater intensity in the transmission of the infection, as it has not been seen throughout the pandemic. "Many people we know are going to get sick".

The country's tourist centers are now the center of the greatest activity of the virus, which is spreading throughout the country's cities: CDMX, Monterrey, and the Bajío area. It is expected that most of those infected will present "mild symptoms". Everything will be "very fast and health services will surely be saturated in a short time". Transmission by Omicron is easy, although contact through respiratory secretions is always required.  Another way is if a COVID infected person coughs into their hand or spits in one place and another touches where they coughed or spit, they can become infected.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of infections occur by airborne transmission." Another example: if an infected person sneezes in an elevator, Omicron is aerosolized and when other people get on the elevator, they can become infected. There is the same risk in a church choir or during a discussion in a classroom. Vaccines do not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, but they do prevent its progression to severe disease. They are extremely effective and safe. There is the idea that the very broad contagious capacity of Omicron at a global level could improve the degree of immunity of sectors of populations and even of our species.

Simultaneously, this large number of infections implies a very high number of viral particles reproducing, multiplying, with the possibility of mistakes in the transmission of their genetic characteristics and therefore, the appearance of new variants with properties that could also be equally or more complicated. We are still in a pandemic and more SARS-CoV-2 variants will surely appear; since we know and we can minimize the risks, we must maintain "a responsible attitude" when "resuming our activities", our daily work, our professional development.

It is a priority to mitigate losses in other areas: in the development of science, in education, in the economy (extremely important for everyone and "critically fundamental" for large sectors of the population). It is urgent, to recover our activities, to establish patterns of activity despite the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 variants. COVID-19, in its different variants, will live with us in the coming years or decades. It could become a disease like influenza and have a periodicity in the winter months, like any other respiratory virus.

If this is the case, he says, we will require recurrent vaccination and at the same time, we will develop a better immune system through different infection experiences. He warns: we have to learn to live differently in the face of the possibility that respiratory infections can turn into epidemics and occur at any time. "No, we are not going back to our previous practices. We have to learn to live with respiratory precautions, with hygiene, with masks, with ventilation, particularly at certain times of the year".

Omicron variant, unusual constellation

The new variant of the coronavirus was named omicron ("small print"). The Technical Advisory Group on the Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 Virus (TAG-VE) of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced at a press conference that they decided to designate omicron as a "variant of concern" for SARS-CoV-2 because it has a "large number of mutations, some of which are of concern. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant. The number of cases appears to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa," the international agency explained.

The first case of the new variant was detected on November 9 in South Africa. That country had seen a significant increase in infections in recent weeks and notified WHO of the coincidence of the increase with the emergence of omicron. "Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several laboratories have indicated that for a widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and therefore this test can be used as a marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. With this approach, this variant has been detected at a faster rate than previous infection surges, suggesting that it may have a growth advantage," WHO detailed in a statement.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Epidemic Response and Innovation Centre in South Africa, told the BBC that the variant has an "unusual constellation of mutations" that "surprised" them and make it very different from previously appearing variants. "It has a big jump in evolution and many more mutations than we expected," the South African specialist added.

On his Twitter account, he added that omicron "is worrying at the mutational level" because it has 50 mutations in general and more than 30 in the spike protein, used by the SARS-CoV-2 virus to attach to other cells. He also asked other governments of the world not to "isolate" South Africa and the world's billionaires to donate resources to the poorest communities in his country to alleviate the economic crisis they are currently suffering after the increase in cases in recent weeks. "South Africa and Africa will need support (financial, public health, scientific) to control it so that it does not spread around the world. Our poor and disadvantaged population cannot be locked up without financial support," he argued.