Summarizing of our post from last might (which we urge everyone to read) for those who are just now waking up to the global chaos resulting from the B.1.1.529 variant, which today got the Greek letter designation Omicron…
… skipping the widely expected letter Nu (and certainly the one following it, Xi), here is what we know, courtesy of Newsquawk, Credit Suisse and Citi.
- Regarded as the most heavily mutated variant of the Coronavirus, thus far, as it has 32 mutations in the spike protein and 50 overall. More specifically, scientists have highlighted that there are 10 mutations vs 2 in the Delta variant regarding the receptor binding domain, which is the portion of the virus that makes initial contact with cells.
- The Omicron variant was identified 5 days ago initially in Botswana with subsequent confirmation and sequencing in South Africa with about 100 confirmed cases. Cases have been detected in Israel and Hong Kong and as of this morning, in Belgium.
- Sequencing data suggests 126.96.36.1999 has a different evolutionary pathway, but shares a few common mutations with the C.1.2, Beta and Delta variants.
- That said, as we cautioned last night, a significant number of mutations may not necessarily be a ‘negative’ as it is dependent on how these mutations function, which scientists are yet to establish. Then again, since it is the job of science to fearmonger so that Pfizer can buy an even bigger yacht, assume it will be “very very horrifying” until proven innocuous.
Is it more deadly
- It is currently too early to determine if the new variant has higher mortality than previous variants. Reported cases only started rising in South Africa on 19 November, so any impact on hospitalizations and COVID-related deaths will not have yet emerged.
Testing and Detectability
- Tulio de Oliveria, the Director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & innovation (CERI), South Africa, has written that the variant can be detected by a normal PCR test and as such it will be “easy for the world to track it”. It wasn’t immediately clear if this is one of those “excess false positive PCR tests” but it’s safe to assume for now that it is.
- According to Credit Suisse, “one silver lining may come in the ease of identifying this variant via qPCR tests. B.1.1.529 has a deletion within the s-gene which can be identified easily via widely-used PCR tests. More complex sequencing analysis is needed to differentiate the delta variant. This will help track the spread of B.1.1.529, both within Southern Africa and across the globe.”
How widespread is it
- As of Thursday there were almost 100 cases detected in South Africa, where it’s become the dominant strain among new infections. Early PCR test results showed that 90% of 1,100 new cases reported Wednesday in the South African province that includes Johannesburg were caused by the new variant, according to de Oliveira.
- In neighboring Botswana, officials recorded four cases on Monday in people who were fully vaccinated. In Hong Kong, a traveler from South Africa was found to have the variant, and another case was identified in a person quarantined in a hotel room across the hall. Israel has also identified one case in a man who recently traveled to Malawi. Belgium has also reported two new cases.
- According to de Oliveira, this new variant, B.1.1.529 “seems to spread very quick! In less than 2 weeks now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa (Blue new variant, now at 75% of last genomes and soon to reach 100%)”