18 May 2024
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Omicron: yet another Greek letter to deal with!

Dr Ross Walker
29 November 2021

Just when you thought it was going to be safe to dip your toe back in the waters of international travel, yet another coronavirus variant has emerged, potentially adding to the fourth wave of this virus, especially affecting the northern hemisphere.

Continuing with the Greek letter theme, this new variant has been named Omicron and already some concerning features have been discovered. The Omicron variant appears to have arisen from South Africa, possibly from occurring in an immunocompromised person who is suffering untreated HIV/AIDS.

This new South African strain B.1.1.529 - thankfully given the name Omicron - has been discovered to have 32 mutations in the spike protein which is the area of the coronavirus that enters cells via the ACE-2 receptors in the lungs. It also has two mutations that have been linked to an increased risk for infection and transmission.

It has become the predominant variant in South Africa with a few hundred cases, on a daily basis. Worryingly, it has also spread to Israel, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong and Botswana. Dutch authorities have also quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who are COVID positive to determine whether they have the Omicron strain. There are also concerns in Australia as 2 cases of COVID were determined in travellers arriving from South Africa. Governments around the world have sensibly shut down travel from affected areas but, with most things corona, it will probably find a way to invade as many countries as possible.

Recent figures have suggested that only 55% of the world’s population is fully vaccinated, with only 40% in South Africa, and tragically we are still seeing a number of ill-informed individuals and groups continuing to protest against mandatory vaccination.

Regardless of the anti-vaxxers’ belief in junk science, the reality is that unless we can achieve well over 90% full vaccination around the world, which I suspect is a pipe dream, we will almost certainly continue to see this virus mutate to the point where it may become vaccine-resistant.

In the meantime, we will have to wait and see over the next few weeks whether this new Omicron variant matches or even exceeds the devastation we've seen with the Delta variant. The reality is that no one can predict what is going to happen over the next 12 months or beyond for that matter with this coronavirus. And just when we thought were starting to see the Delta variant under control in Australia, it appears that this new threat may cause further outbreaks.

This is one time when I sincerely hope that I'm getting this absolutely wrong and the Omicron strain fizzles out quickly.

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