As countries restrict travel and take other measures to stop the latest potentially risky coronavirus mutants, a world tired of epidemics faces weeks of confusing uncertainty before people know how dangerous omicron is.
Will it spread faster than delta variants that are already super contagious? Does it make people sick? Does it evade the protection of the vaccine or reinfect the survivor? There are many speculations, but there is almost no conclusive evidence, because scientists are racing to find answers under the supervision of an anxious public.
Trevor Bedford, who studies the evolution of the coronavirus at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, described the response of health experts as “almost frightened.”
He said that Omicron may not be “as bad as we thought, but treat it in a situation that I think is completely appropriate at the moment.”
So far, the world’s response to every coronavirus curve ball has been slow. This time the early warnings from South Africa and Botswana may provide important opportunities.
“It’s hard to know: Are we simply catching up with reality, and now the world is responding to the emergence of variants at an appropriate rate?” asked Dr. Jacob Lemieux, a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School Monitor variation.
Why should I worry?
Omicron caused an alarm due to its large number of mutations, surpassing the previous variants. There may be 30 spike proteins that are located at key locations, which allow the virus to attach to human cells.
Scientists have identified some mutations from early variants that are more contagious or somewhat resistant to vaccination. But they have never seen this particular change.
Most are “really unique to this virus,” said Dr. William Moss of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s this combination of potentially increased infectivity and ability-potential ability-that makes everyone worry about escaping our immune system.”
“It’s a balance,” Moss said. “Because of the combination of mutations, we want to take this seriously, but we don’t want to panic or overreact until we really understand the virus.”
Fight for answers
Scientists have no data on whether omicron causes more serious diseases than other variants. Although it was diagnosed in many countries a few days after the discovery was announced, it is still too early to know its infectiousness.
The alpha variant that appeared about a year ago is more transmissible than the virus that caused the pandemic. Then delta hits, which is more contagious than alpha.
Louis Mansky, director of the Institute of Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota, said that it is not yet clear how omicron will compete in places like the United States, where this powerful delta variant is responsible for more than 99% of the current COVID-19 cases.
Lemieux said that even in some parts of South Africa, the reported surge in cases caused by omicron may not indicate that the mutant is more infectious than delta.
“We really don’t know if omicron beats delta in the competition or if it just became the dominant strain in a few places by accident,” he said.
In order to better understand omicron, scientists are trying to figure out how it appeared. It is not a descendant of delta. A popular theory is that people with severely weakened immune systems are infected with the coronavirus, and they cannot get rid of it for too long, so that mutations accumulate.
“It’s totally weird,” Bedford said, saying that the variants popular in the summer of 2020 appear to be close relatives of omicron.
The virus mutates every time it spreads, and omicron may be lurking in a place where COVID-19 has been poorly tested without being detected. But Bedford said that its sudden appearance is more likely to be the result of cats and mice, because the immune-compromised body will fight the virus, which repeatedly changes its spike protein to avoid detection. (Bedford received funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports the Associated Press Department of Health and Science.)
What to pay attention to
Scientists say it may take two to four weeks to get some important answers.
One of the biggest concerns is how much omicron might escape immunity. So far, the beta variant has been the biggest challenge for vaccine protection, but fortunately, the variant has not spread widely.
E. John Wherry, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said: “This new variant is extremely unlikely to escape all the antibodies produced after vaccination.”
Vaccine manufacturers and other scientists are establishing laboratory tests to understand how effective the vaccine or the antibodies produced by previous infections can fight omicron compared to earlier variants. This takes time, because first, they must cultivate samples of so-called “fake viruses” that contain worrying new mutations.
But this “would not be the whole story,” Moss said.
In addition to antibodies, the immune system has multiple layers of defense, including T cells. Even if someone experiences a breakthrough infection, it should help avoid serious diseases.
Experts will also carefully monitor the prevalence and severity of infections caused by omicron.
Regarding treatment, Regeneron said that although more tests are needed, its COVID-19 antibody mixture may be less effective on omicron. However, there are some antiviral drugs under development. This is a new option that is needed for a long time and should not be affected by omicron mutations.
What to do now
Scientists urge people to take simple precautions while waiting for answers-wear a mask indoors and avoid crowds. If you are one of the 45 million U.S. adults who have not been vaccinated, get vaccinated-no matter what the mutation is spreading.
One thing is clear: vaccination is still crucial. Today’s injection can indeed prevent delta and other versions of the virus, no matter whether omicron spreads or fails, they are already raging. The United States and other countries are urging people who are eligible to receive boosters not to wait, because the extra dose can cause a massive outbreak of antiviral antibodies.
“People who are on the sidelines of whether to get vaccinated should see an important reason for getting vaccinated. People who have not yet received a booster but meet the conditions should get a booster. Then I think we need to let scientists and public health practitioners do their job. Work,” Lemieux said.