Omicron, the latest and reportedly "high-risk" variant of SARS -COV-2 has taken the world by storm. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the global risk from the omicron variant is “very high” based on the early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”
The assessment from the U.N. health agency, contained in a technical paper issued to member states, amounted to WHO’s strongest, most explicit warning yet about the new version that was first identified days ago by researchers in South Africa.
Governments across the world are bracing for a potential breakout of Omicron.
But what is Omicron?
Omicron or the B.1.1.529 is a variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus, popularly known as coronavirus or Covid-19. It is the 12th variant of the Covid-19 virus that WHO has named on Greek alphabets. The apex body has been using the Greek alphabets to name the most prevalent covid-19 variants, meaning at least 12 known variants or strains of the SARS-COV-2 virus are known so far.
Why is Omicron worrying the world?
It is one of the five variants of concern (VOC) identified by the WHO. It has also identified eight other strains as variants of interest (VOI). The WHO, however, is not yet certain about whether the rate of transmission of the Omicron variant is more or less as compared to previous variants like Delta.
The WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.
While no deaths linked to omicron have been reported so far, little is known for certain about the variant, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines. Last week, a WHO advisory panel said it might be more likely to re-infect people who have already had about with Covid-19.
Scientists have long warned that the virus will keep finding new ways to exploit weaknesses in the world’s vaccination drive, and its discovery in Africa occurred in a continent where under 7% of the population is vaccinated.
What is a mutation?
Since it emerged in 2019, the Covid-19 virus has mutated several times. Mutations refer to changes in the genetic code of a virus, leading to changes in its spike protein. These changes in turn impact the way it interacts with cells.
The presence of multiple mutations on the spike protein facilitates the virus’s entry into the body with more ease making the strain more dangerous. The effects and their impact are still being studied.
The Omicron variant appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads among people.
Can you call it the Omicron virus?
There is no such thing as the 'Omicron virus'. The virus is still Covid-19. Omicron is just another variant or mutation of the Covid-19 virus.
While many on social media and even news media platforms have referred to the new variant as the "omicron virus" (also a trending Google search term), Omicron or B.1.1.529 is a strain of Covid-19 arising from a mutation of the SARS-COV-2 virus or Covid-19.
Can you call Omicron the 'South Africa virus'?
The answer is, no. Referring to Omicron as the 'South Africa' virus is the same as the time Donald Trump called Covid-19 the "China virus".
Following the breakout of Covid-19 in China's Wuhan in 2019, several Asians across the world were subjected to Covid-related incidents of hate and racism. Using the name of a place to describe the virus or its variants (Chinese virus, Indian variant, South Africa Virus) instead of their official names can lead not only to confusion but also racism and stigma against the place and its population.
I want to be clear about the nu variant.
We know what we know BECAUSE South Africa has invested in advanced genomic sequencing.
We owe them a debt of gratitude - not punishment.
Transparency is critical in a global pandemic. We need to support these efforts collaboratively.— Ingrid Katz (@IngridKatzMD) November 26, 2021
At present, several African nations are facing travel bans from as many as 12 nations with many criticising the restrictions on travel in the absence of conclusive evidence on the new Covid-19 variant. These are nations whose economies have greatly suffered during the waves of the covid-19 pandemic since 2019. On Monday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the travel restrictions and said that they would further damage the affected nations' capacity to recover from the pandemic.
(With inputs from Agencies)