It’s been almost two years since the rise and spread of COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic has altered several aspects of life, such as work, lifestyle, social life, education, and mental health. Now, sanitizers, masks, blood tests, and social distancing are the norm. In India, the soberness of the virus has been nothing less than a roller-coaster, with things going from looking extremely bad, to being in control to some extent, to launching into another high. Just as one couldn’t imagine things getting any worse, the newest and deadliest COVID variant as of now was discovered— Omicron.
What is Omicron?
Omicron is a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. On 26th November 2021, the novel COVID variant was identified as the Variant of Concern (VOC) by the World Health Organization.
Before Omicron, the other variants of COVID known to us were Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, which emerged in Great Britain, South Africa, Brazil, and India, respectively. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the effects of these variants can be described as:
- Alpha: Studies predict it may be 55% deadlier than other COVID variants, though currently available vaccines provide good protection against the strain.
- Beta: Vaccine antibodies might not be efficient enough to protect the body from this variant.
- Gamma: Could re-infect those who have already gained immunity to other variants.
- Delta: Highly transmissible, contagious, and has the ability to evade some types of antibodies.
The first Omicron case was detected on 9th November 2021. The new variant was discovered on 24th November in South Africa. The WHO’s TAG-VE, or Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution, designated the COVID variant the name ‘Omicron’ on 26th November 2021. The latest COVID version is also known as B.1.1.529.
Omicron possesses a huge number of mutations, including more than 30 spike protein genetic alterations. Some of the presently authorized COVID-19 vaccines target the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. Hence, alterations in the spike protein must be continuously watched.
Previously, certain changes were linked to increased transmissibility and making it simpler for the virus to connect and adhere to cells. Preliminary research shows that this variation has a higher risk of re-infection than other VOCs. Omicron is also six times more communicable than the Delta variant and could also infect fully vaccinated individuals or people without any of the textbook symptoms.
The Symptoms and Effects of Omicron
Fever, weariness, cough, and loss of taste or smell are the most prevalent symptoms of the emerging COVID variant ‘Omicron’. Sore throat, headache, aches and pains, diarrhea, rashes on the skin, discoloration of the fingers or toes, and red or irritated eyes, on the other hand, are less frequent but still indicative symptoms.
The rampant spread of this VOC in such a short span of time has forced several nations, including India, to revise their travel activity and restrictions. As more incidents emerge throughout the world, some nations are even considering further prohibitions. Top specialists, however, think that the new version has spread far and that it is just a matter of time until it is detected in additional nations.
Depending on the severity of the situation, governments are preparing to employ harsher guidelines such as closing public areas such as cinema malls, places of worship, swimming pools, etc., imposing curfews, and are ready to go to the extent of lockdowns. For example, as of now, West Bengal is under partial lockdown. If things get any worse, we would have to resort to the kind of restrictions we had in early 2020 in the initial stage of the pandemic, hampering the country’s economic growth.
The new variant has already affected the travel and tourism, aviation, restaurant, and other ancillary sectors creating economic downfall and threatening their recent and extremely slow recovery. Also, if the variant becomes the dominant COVID -19 variant in terms of transmissibility & resistance to vaccines, it could cause severe disruption to already battered supply chains.
What is even more alarming is that this particular variant is more likely to affect children compared to the original and Delta variant. Observations in South Africa have suggested that the rate of hospitalization for children infected with Omicron is higher than those seen in previous waves. India has started vaccinating their 15-18 year-olds only from 3rd January 2021. This still leaves several children vulnerable to the virus. However, experts emphasize that this does not necessarily imply that children are more sensitive to Omicron than they were to Delta or other variations.
The bottom line concerning Omicron’s propagation and impact is that it spreads quickly and, thus, is more harmful.
Omicron In India: What to Expect
In India, out of the 183 Omicron cases studied so far, 91% were completely vaccinated, including three receiving supplemental doses, 70% were asymptomatic, and 61% were males. There are 114 people who have recovered from the Omicron variant. According to the Indian Government, quoting WHO, Omicron has a substantial growth advantage over Delta, spreading rapidly through communities with a doubling time of 1.5 to 3 days.
Given the evidence and observations so far and the growing dominance of Omicron from South Africa to now many other parts of the world, it will rapidly spread across India. Omicron also marks the beginning of the third wave of the pandemic in India. According to IIT, the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, the third wave of coronavirus in India will peak on 3rd February 2022, and the country must prepare for the third wave of illnesses. The third pandemic wave was predicted using data from the preceding two waves. Researchers also used data from other nations that are already dealing with a third wave, modeling their daily case data and forecasting the impact and timetable of the third wave in India.
According to Professor M. Vidyasagar of IIT Hyderabad and Maninda Agrawal of IIT Kanpur, the daily caseload would increase when Omicron begins to supplant Delta as the main form. According to Vidyasagar, the chairman of the National COVID-19 Supermodel Committee, India will experience Omicron’s third wave, though it will be milder than the second wave. Agarwal also predicts that the third wave should end by April of this year.
The number of instances, according to the IIT professor, will be determined by two parameters, both of which are unknown at this time. The first is the amount to which Omicron bypasses natural immunity established via past exposure to Delta, and the second is the extent to which Omicron bypasses vaccination-induced immunity. As a result, he is certain that the recovery rate and the number of cases will be substantially higher than in the second wave.
Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the chairperson of BIOCON in an interview, said, “We need to brace ourselves for many variants. Omicron is not the last; we believe that hospitals are more prepared this time, & we are veering towards an endemic situation. Delta should also not be a huge worry; we know how to deal with it now.”
Maharashtra and Delhi have recorded the largest number of Omicron cases in India, with 55 – 55 instances of Omicron reported in Maharashtra and Delhi, respectively, as of 21st December 2021. Omicron has only been recorded in 12 states.
What is a Booster Shot? Do I Need It?
The term ‘booster’ refers to an additional dosage of a vaccination given after the initial (or primary) dose has been provided. According to Sandy Salverson, PharmD, vice-president of Pharmacy Operations at OSF HealthCare, these boosters might occur weeks, months, or years later. When it comes to getting vaccinated against a disease like COVID-19, booster injections might be a standard part of the procedure. “Most adults have a memory of having to get a booster for a childhood disease, such as measles, meningitis, or whooping cough. Or for a disease like tetanus, where booster shots are recommended every ten years as the original immunity wanes,” Sandy said.
The reason why you might need it is that some vaccinations are delivered using the approach of providing the initial (or primary) dosage combined with a booster dose. The immune system is primed with the initial dosage to identify and make antibodies against the virus against which it was designed to protect. Booster injections are given to the body’s immune system to remind it of the infection it needs to protect against. This strengthens or boosts the immune system.
Researchers suggested the need for a booster shot after looking into the potential impact of the Omicron variant on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Although the information is currently limited, there may be a slight decrease in the effectiveness of vaccinations against serious sickness and death, as well as a decrease in the efficiency of vaccines in preventing mild disease and infection.
However, according to WHO, currently available vaccinations appear to provide considerable protection against severe illness and mortality. Laboratory studies have suggested that the Omicron variant may be able to evade COVID vaccine-induced immunity, and preliminary data from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the vaccines are not as protective against Omicron infections as they have been against other variants, though the number of cases studied was insufficient to determine how much protection has decreased.
In addition to antibodies, the immune system of previously infected and vaccinated persons deploys T cells, which may detect viral protein fragments and kill virus-infected cells, potentially restricting the breadth of infection.
The yet-to-be-published study found that antibody levels against Omicron after the booster shot were greater than antibodies in those who had been infected with COVID-19 and recovered spontaneously. Neutralizing levels against Omicron after three doses of the vaccination were comparable to those against the virus’s Delta version after two doses.
Individuals who have gotten boosters with mRNA vaccines (particularly Pfizer’s) appear to have some amount of protection against symptomatic disorders for this variation, according to preliminary findings from the UK.
What Can The Government Do To Limit The Spread of Omicron?
The new variant has not only rattled common citizens and the healthcare sector but has also affected the Government. To control the spread of the variant, our Government could take the following steps:
- Individuals should be urged to use established public health and social measures to lower their risk of COVID-19, such as wearing well-fitting masks, maintaining hand cleanliness and physical distance, enhancing the ventilation of interior spaces, avoiding crowded places, and being vaccinated.
- Complete genome (gene pool of an organism) sequences and accompanying metadata should be submitted to a publicly accessible database, such as GISAID.
- Through the IHR process, report early cases/clusters related to VOC infection to WHO.
- Increase monitoring and sequencing efforts to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 variants in circulation.
- Perform and invest in field investigations and laboratory assessments where capacity exists and in collaboration with the international community to improve understanding of the potential impact of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, the effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.
- Continue to put in place effective public health and social interventions to minimize COVID-19 circulation.
- Increase immunization coverage in at-risk groups in all nations by identifying unvaccinated populations and focusing on the most vulnerable.
- Conducting field research and laboratory evaluations to determine whether Omicron has distinct transmission or illness features or if it affects the efficiency of vaccinations, treatments, diagnostics, or public health and social interventions.
- Inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccinations must be addressed immediately to guarantee that vulnerable populations worldwide, including health professionals and the elderly, receive their first and second doses, as well as equal access to treatment and diagnostics.
However, all of these precautions will be rendered useless until citizens do their bit by getting vaccinated, maintaining social distance, avoiding going outside as much as possible, checking for symptoms regularly, sanitizing around the clock, and staying careful in general.
Omicron has shaken up the masses, but everything that has been happening for the past two years is anything but normal. We have fought through unprecedented times, even with the unpredictability of the situation. Also, evidence does suggest that one could avoid the virus if careful. So, as responsible citizens, all we should do is follow guidelines, educate ourselves continually and not develop paranoia regarding the crisis.
Written by: Samiksha