By Noralyn Onto Dudt
OMICRON, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet has been drafted by the World Health Organization as the name for the new COVID-19 variant, technically known as the B.1.1.529 variant. The Omicron variant is a reminder of what scientists and medical experts have been saying for months: COVID-19 will thrive as long as vast numbers of the global population are not vaccinated.
Scientists say that Omicron is the weirdest creature they have ever encountered with 30 unruly swarm of mutations scattered on three major prongs of the spike protein that is essential to the virus ability to infect cells, a first of its kind with so many mutations gathered in “one package.” Even though some of these mutations are recognizable, many of them are new and utterly enigmatic.
That said, scientists do not want to get ahead of the facts: no one knows exactly yet how this variant behaves in real-world situations. However, should they find a high degree of immune-evasiveness, vaccine makers will have to revise their formulas, something already in the works at preliminary stage.
Is it really as bad as it looks at first glance ? Earlier variants including Alpha and Delta had mutated in ways that enhanced their transmissibility. The latest preliminary study showed that the Omicron variant is likely to have picked up genetic material from another virus that causes the common cold in humans. This suggests that the Omicron variant could have greater transmissibility but lower virulence than other variants of the coronavirus. However, scientists have long feared the possibility that the coronavirus would evolve to become a more slippery, elusive pathogen—evading, even if only partially, the first lines of defense from the immune system, including neutralizing antibodies.
When a virus infects a human, the virus attaches itself to the human cells and once it is inside , it makes copies of its RNA which helps it spread. If there’s an error in the copying process, the RNA gets altered or changed. Those alterations are called mutations. The mutations change one amino acid to another in a way that can alter the structure or chemistry of the protein and prevent antibodies from binding as they normally would. When a virus replicates, the end copy has differences in DNA and RNA. Mutations arise from those differences. A “collection” of these mutations becomes a variant.
So where do we go from here? Many elements of the Omicron are still unknown. Scientists are literally working day and night to find out more. However, their advice is: vaccination is still the key. Vaccines work by training the immune system against the coronavirus spike protein. Had it not been for the vaccines that were jabbed into our arms, many more millions would have died.
There are other elements of the immune system such as “killer” T cells. These are immune cells that recognize and attack virus-infected cells and educate anti-body producing B cells about the viral risk they are facing. Scientists believe that the T cells can see the differences between variants, and that the T cell repertoire is much more impervious to it, guaranteeing some protection. Vaccinated individuals are roughly 9x less likely to die if they become infected with the Omicron.
Although it is difficult to predict from a virus’ mutations how it will act, many scientists say they think omicron may ultimately require a revised vaccine. The major vaccine companies are at work doing that. Pfizer and BioNTech have announced that adapting their vaccine will take six weeks and that the first batches could be shipped within 100 days.
Unless more of the world population becomes vaccinated, the frenzy of worry is likely to continue to repeat. Health experts say that “if we don’t develop systems to immunize the whole world in four months, instead of four years, we are not going to be successful against these kind of pandemic threats.” Viruses adapt and they change, and unless we develop generalized global immunity more readily, we will always be in the mercy of one pandemic after another. It is a colossal task that requires a herculean effort and cooperation by the international community.
Noralyn Onto Dudt is a resident of North Bethesda, Maryland near the National Institutes of Health.