Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

The new variant may have quickly overtaken other strains of the virus in South Africa as it enters the summer, but the cases so far appear to have been overwhelmingly mild.

Then come a report showing the variant carries a portion of genetic material that is very similar to segments seen in one of the types of coronavirus that causes the common cold – one called HCoV-229E. A few researchers said it could just indicate that the variant is starting to look more like an annoying virus than a large killer.
Omicron, a new and potentially more transmissible variant of coronavirus first identified in South Africa, has sparked a new round of travel restrictions around the world, raising concerns about what may be next in the pandemic.
Omicron, a new and potentially more transmissible variant of coronavirus first identified in South Africa, has sparked a new round of travel restrictions around the world, raising concerns about what may be next in the pandemic. (EyePress News / Reuters)

It’s a tempting idea. Many infectious disease experts have predicted that the new coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, would go in this direction and evolve into a milder form that joins the annual mix of seasonal respiratory viruses.

Could this be the variant that at least starts it that way?

It’s too early to start thinking about it, several experts tell CNN. First, that segment of genetic material may look like a piece of cold virus, but it’s a very big stretch from there to say that it means SARS-CoV-2 has begun to evolve into something milder.

“Even assuming the effort came from a common cold virus – it’s very skewed – it probably would not make it any more like a cold virus,” virologist Robert Garry of Tulane University School of Medicine told CNN.

It is a small piece of genetic material and not one that is necessarily on a part of the virus that would affect its virulence, he said.

“The idea that this variant is milder is just pure speculation. There is no reason to believe that it is,” said Michael Worobey, head of the Department of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona.

A health worker takes a graft sample of a passenger entering the city to test for COVID-19 at a railway station in Ahmedabad, India, on Friday, December 3, 2021
A health worker takes a graft sample of a passenger entering the city to test for COVID-19 at a railway station in Ahmedabad, India. (AP)

It takes time to develop a serious illness

Additionally, there has not been quite enough time to claim that the actual experience with Omicron shows that it mainly causes mild illness.

There has not been quite enough time to know how likely Omicron is to cause serious illness, said William Schaffner, medical director at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and an expert in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

“There is a difference between hopefuls and reality. It’s good to hope, but it’s too early to conclude that Omicron only produces mild infections. We do not have this data,” said Dr. Schaffner to CNN.

“Covid has thrown us several basket balls.”

The data from South Africa, the first country to discover the Omicron variant, looks hopeful.

“We do not see many serious cases. I would like to warn that we have only known about this for a week, so it is early,” said Dr Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist for infectious diseases who is helping to coordinate South Africa’s response to Covid. -19, told CNN.

A man wearing a face mask to help slow the spread of coronavirus is walking out of a shopping mall in Beijing. (AP Photo / Andy Wong) (AP)

“I have spoken to the president of our medical association. She collects this data from all the doctors, and basically what they are saying to us at this point is that the cases are generally mild,” he said.

“Now one has to be very careful not to over-interpret it, because it is still very early, as serious cases usually take longer.

“They occur in weeks two, three and four. So it may be that serious cases follow later.”

Dr. Schaffner says it a little more bluntly.

“Death is a lame indicator,” he said.

“It takes time to develop into a serious infection. It takes time for more serious infections to follow.”

A petrol attendant uses next to a newspaper headline in Pretoria, South Africa. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell) (AP)

Different populations in different countries

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he hopes early reports indicate Omicron may cause milder disease.

“It raises the possibility that it might not be as bad as some people feared,” he told CNN.

But “that does not mean it is not bad at all”.

“The caveat is that South Africa has a younger population,” he said.

Younger people have been less likely to develop serious illness from COVID-19, which has killed 5.2 million people globally, more than 2,000 in Australia and 789,000 in the United States alone, according to Johns Hopkins University.

But more people are vaccinated in the United States and Australia than in South Africa. Investigations into Omicron vaccines are underway.

“I think it’s pretty easy to say that if you’re fully vaccinated, the breakthrough you’re getting with Omicron will be milder,” said Dr. Adalja.

“Even if this bypasses some of our vaccine-induced protection, it is not an all-or-done effect.”

What will the Omicron variant mean for us when life slowly begins to return to normal
What will the Omicron variant mean for us when life slowly begins to return to normal (A current affair)

And it’s becoming clear that Omicron is very transferable.

“Over the past week, the number of daily infections has increased fivefold,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a weekly newsletter on Monday.

The number of positive COVID-19 tests in South Africa has increased by 24 percent since the Omicron variant was discovered two weeks ago, according to the latest data from the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

A virus that is more transmissible while causing milder disease is just what researchers would expect to see in something that was evolving to become more like other common cold viruses.

“Those of us who know this will be an endemic respiratory virus have been waiting to understand what the virus does to become more like its other family members, causing about 25 percent of our common colds,” Adalja said.

“So people are looking for those changes. And maybe it’s – maybe it’s not.”

International travelers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) arrive at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (AFP)

‘The old enemy’ Delta remains dominant

In addition, it is not clear that Omicron can outperform Delta in countries like the United States, said Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Crystal Watson.

“Even if we have good protection against serious illness and death from vaccines, a large increase in Omicron can still be dangerous if it is highly transmissible,” said Dr. Watson, a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“High numbers can still mean a lot of people in the hospital,” she said.

“There will be some people, a population large enough to create stress on the health care system, who will not be so protected by vaccination or against prior infection.”

This could lead to more pressure on already stressed hospitals.

“Our healthcare system is just so fragile right now,” said Dr. Watson.

“We’ve lost a lot of staff and people are really exhausted. The system itself is exhausted.”

Shoppers wear masks as they walk down Carnaby Street in London on Saturday (AP Photo / Alberto Pezzali) (AP)

It’s the same around the world, noted Francois Balloux, director of the University College London Genetics Institute.

“Early, largely anecdotal evidence suggests that Omicron may be less virulent than Delta. This would be good news if confirmed in principle,” Professor Balloux said in a statement.

“It remains that even if Omicron infections were associated with fewer hospitalizations and deaths, a small proportion of serious outcomes out of a very large number of infections could still cause intense pressure on health systems.”

And dr. Schaffner is concerned that unvaccinated people may take reports of a milder variant as a reason to continue to delay vaccination.

“While we’re busy and fascinated by Omicron, Delta, this summer’s old enemy is still here, causing damage,” he said.

“We all need to be vaccinated. All this enchantment with Omicron is not an excuse for not being vaccinated.”

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