Is Omicron as Ominous as it Sounds?

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Issue 8, Volume 112

By Sophia Wan-Brodsky, Karina Gupta 

With over 100,000 new COVID-19 infections per day, our country is far from back to normal. Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 evolves as genetic mutations occur. This causes the formation of variants, which are classified according to the risk they pose. As of now, only two variants of concern have been identified by the CDC. One of them is the Delta variant, which was first detected in late 2020. Recently, a new variant has emerged, threatening the fight to reestablish our pre-COVID lives: the Omicron.

The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa on November 23, 2021 and is currently spreading in that region twice as quickly as the Delta variant did. As of today, the majority of positive COVID tests are of the Omicron variant. Rapidly gaining a stronger grip on South Africa, this variant has begun branching out into other regions, having since been identified in 57 countries and counting. Though no deaths have been associated with Omicron so far, these figures have generated concern about the transmissibility of this new variant as well as the effectiveness of vaccinations against it.

The efficacy of COVID vaccines on Omicron is now a widely debated topic in the scientific community given the rise of Omicron cases in South Africa, a region which is around one quarter vaccinated. Recently, Pfizer has released promising data painting the outlook as slightly less ominous. Though two doses seem to be insufficiently protective, Pfizer booster shots––now available for individuals ages 16 years and older––have been shown to neutralize the Omicron variant.

Worry around the vaccine’s resistance against Omicron also stems from the fact that it is now the most heavily mutated COVID variant so far. Omicron possesses about 50 mutations, a troubling increase from the Delta variant’s mere 15. Similar to previous strains, most of Omicron’s mutations are exhibited in its spike proteins, structures crucial to the replication of coronaviruses. Aptly named for the “spikes” they form on the outside of the virus, these structures are bumpy glycoproteins located on the viral membrane. These proteins allow the virus to fuse to the membrane of the cell and send virus replication instructions inside; the eventual accumulation of viruses within the cell may lead to its collapse.

It is also important to note that more mutations doesn’t necessarily amount to a more deadly virus. Amid the heightened concerns and growing rates, research has suggested that Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta does. While Omicron cases have surged in South Africa, the country has not seen a significant uptick in hospitalizations or deaths.

Despite its lack of extreme severity, researchers at the South African Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University concluded that Omicron has a greater ability to infect previously infected individuals. The researchers identified over 35,000 unvaccinated South Africans who have had at least two suspected COVID infections. From there, the researchers focused on individuals who were reinfected more than once. It was discovered that 14.2 percent experienced their third infection this November, which correlates with the dominance of Omicron in the country during that time. However, most of the research is still preliminary, and studies have yet to be reviewed.

Pfizer is now launching Paxlovid, a pill to be orally ingested after the exhibition of COVID symptoms. New studies show that Paxlovid was found to cut the rate of hospitalization or death one month after infection by 89 percent in high-risk adults with COVID-19. While many are concerned about the virus’s ability to mutate around this new pill, scientists have affirmed that rather than engaging with the DNA, this pill interferes with the replication of SARS-CoV-2 by binding to protease, an enzyme impertinent to the reproduction of the virus as well as the rest of its functions. This pill, if approved by the FDA, will be sold in pharmacies and will allow more people to treat their symptoms early on, hopefully leading to a brighter, maskless future.