What is the new COVID Omicron variant? Here’s what we know

The South African coronavirus variant known as Omicron or B.1.1.529 is raising red flags worldwide. 

 COVID-19 (illustrative) (photo credit: TORANGE)
COVID-19 (illustrative)
(photo credit: TORANGE)

The South African coronavirus variant known as Omicron or B.1.1.529 is raising red flags worldwide. 

Here’s everything we know so far:

What are the characteristics of this new variant?

The variant has a high number of mutations to the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that allows it to bind to human cells and spread throughout the body. These mutations could affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and also potentially make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen.

“If the Delta variant had 10 mutations in the spike, this one has more than 30, which is quite a lot,” said Dr. Oren Kobiler of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Ma (credit: NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES - NIH/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Ma (credit: NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES - NIH/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

These mutations are not only more, but are also seen in other variants that are associated with both higher transmissibility and “immune escape” – immunity evasion.

Specifically, he explained that some of the mutations are reminiscent of what the world saw in the Beta variant, which was the most immune-evading one so far.

“So it might be that this variant could escape the immunity we already have against the virus from vaccination or recovery, but we are not sure,” Kobiler stressed.

“We cannot say it is necessarily more dangerous, just that it requires caution and further investigation to determine whether this particular variant is prone to be more efficient in infecting, more active and efficient in replicating in infected cells, or if it causes a more severe disease,” said Prof. Jonathan Gershoni of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research at Tel Aviv University.

Where was the variant found? 

The first cases of B.1.1.529 were discovered in the Gauteng province of South Africa, though that does not necessarily mean South Africa is where the mutation originated.

The country confirmed around 100 cases, and said that the variant now accounts for more than 30% of all infections in the Gauteng province, according to a briefing by the South African Health Ministry.

Cases have also been discovered in Hong Kong, Belgium, Botswana and the United Kingdom, with suspected cases being evaluated in Germany and the Czech Republic. On Friday, the Health Ministry said at least one case was discovered in Israel and the ministry is evaluating seven potential additional cases.

“This is the first time that we are seeing a variant that is not a Delta derivative that is taking over the Delta variant,” Kobiler said, though he noted that there were few cases of Delta in the province before this latest outbreak.

“The Delta wave was at a very low point, so this variant did not need to take over for the Delta but more arose as the Delta was not there,” Kobiler continued. “So, we are really not sure if it is more infectious than Delta yet. But it is a concern. Until now, we have not seen anything rising faster after Delta that can take over an area that had Delta before.”

Could this variant have been predicted?

Wherever infection is high, there is always a risk of new variants.

Vaccine inequality has left most poor- and middle-income countries without enough shots. In South Africa, for example, only around 20% of the eligible population is jabbed.

“We have said that we need to vaccinate Africa because variants will come from unvaccinated populations,” Kobiler said. “We have said it again and again: Until everyone is safe, no one is safe. This is what we expected to see.”

So, this was not the first variant and won’t be the last?

“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, a large number of variants have been identified including the new variant from Africa,” said Dr. Nadav Sorek, assistant manager of the clinical microbiology laboratory at Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital. “There are quite a few more variants that the World Health Organization is following.”

He said that there have been many variants that started out as variants of concern but soon faded away.

What could the new variant mean for travel?

Israel placed several African countries on its red list of banned states, meaning that Israelis cannot travel to them without special permission. Anyone entering Israel from these countries would also be required to quarantine for seven days even if they are vaccinated.

“The proliferation of mutations, some of which are known to be problematic, justifies preventative conduct and extreme caution,” said Prof. Ran Balicer, chief innovation officer for Clalit Health Services who runs the country’s COVID-19 professional cabinet.

“Israel was right to stop flights, but unfortunately, this was not done early enough and the variant already entered the country,” Kobiler said.

He suggested that Israel, again, tighten its border restrictions in general.

Sorek agreed, saying that while Israel has put a spotlight on the African countries, in general, people coming from abroad could be carrying B.1.1.529 at this stage, so everyone should be monitored or restricted until more is known.

“Travel has been a big issue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sorek said, “and we always need to be monitoring people no matter where people are coming in [to Israel] from because they can bring new variants.

“Travel helps variants spread quicker.”

What else can we do to protect ourselves?

Health experts are still advising that vaccination is the No. 1 protection against COVID-19. 

Health experts are still advising that vaccination is the No. 1 protection against COVID-19.

“Careful examination of the specific point mutations that have been reported showed that the spike nonetheless retains considerable surface that has been unaltered, so we can expect that a person that has been vaccinated most probably has mounted antibodies that should be able to recognize with some degree of efficiency the variant’s spike protein,” Gershoni said.

“Will that be as much as with other variants? One does not know. But we should be confident that vaccination will afford some level of protection.”

Pfizer has said that it should be able to determine within the next two weeks if its shots hold up against the new variant, adding that, if not, they should be able to modify their vaccine within five to six weeks.

Moderna said that it is set up to launch human trials within 60 days and to manufacture new doses within just a few months if the Omicron variant requires it. And Johnson & Johnson said it is already testing its vaccine against the variant.

Vaccinations are now available in Israel for anyone over the age of five. Boosters are also available to anyone over the age of 12 who was jabbed at least six months prior.

Kobiler also recommended that people go back to masking indoors and that the government step up enforcement against anyone who is not adhering to this rule.