Cases of the Omicron (B.1.1.529) COVID-19 variant, first detected in South Africa, have now been found in several European countries.
Six new cases in Scotland were reported today, some of which with no known travel history. This is in addition to three cases already detected in England, including one linked to a primary school in Brentwood, Essex.
Cases have also been reported in Italy, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Portugal – where 13 cases have been associated with a football team.
“We are now in a race against time” with the new variant, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday.
First reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday, Omicron has since been found outside of Europe too – Botswana, Canada, Australia, Israel, and Hong Kong have all reported cases.
While no cases have yet been confirmed in the US, it’s just a matter of time, according to Dr Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser. “I would not be surprised if it is [already in the US]” he told NBC on Saturday.
So far, no deaths linked to the new variant have been reported, although the WHO cautions that the global risk is very high.
“Increasing cases, regardless of a change in severity, may pose overwhelming demands on healthcare systems and may lead to increased morbidity and mortality. The impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage,” it said on Monday.
Vaccination coverage has come under scrutiny in recent days, with many blaming vaccine nationalism for the emergence of the new variant. Only 5.8 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, compared to 73.68 percent of those in high-income countries. Such low vaccine coverage could increase the risk of new SARS-CoV-2 variants by enabling community transmission. However, the relationship between the two is currently unclear.
Highly mutated variants – Omicron has an astonishing 32 mutations in the spike protein alone – can also develop in individuals with a compromised immune system, providing another possible source of the new variant.
With its many mutations, it is possible that the variant could evade our immune systems better than previous variants, but not much is known at this time. “It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible” or “whether [it] causes more severe disease,” the WHO’s latest update says.
Patients in South Africa have so far had “very mild symptoms,” Dr Angelique Coetzee, the doctor who first discovered the new variant, told Reuters. None have been hospitalized, she added.
"The most predominant clinical complaint is severe fatigue for one or two days. With them, the headache and the body aches and pain."
However, the WHO counters that those early infections were reported in younger individuals, who are expected generally to have milder disease.
As for the effectiveness of vaccines against Omicron, the WHO and manufacturers are investigating it. Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson are all testing their vaccines against the new variant, according to Business Insider.
Moderna says they could have a new vaccine by early 2022, while Pfizer say theirs could be ready within 100 days, if necessary. They should know within two weeks whether their current vaccine is effective against Omicron, a Pfizer spokesperson told Reuters.