Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

The 3 important ways omicron differs from COVID-19 delta variant

The world is ablaze with the news that the coronavirus has a new variant of concern — one that appears to be driving a dramatic surge in South Africa and offering a glimpse of where the pandemic might be headed. What do we know so far about how omicron differs from delta?

Little is known about the new variant, but the spike in South Africa suggests it might be more contagious, said Dr. Sikhulile Moyo of Botswana, the scientist who may have been the first to identify the new variant, though researchers in neighboring South Africa were close on his heels. It’s not clear if the variant causes more serious illness or can evade the protection of vaccines.

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South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla noted that only a small number of people who have been vaccinated have gotten sick, mostly with mild cases, while the vast majority of those who have been hospitalized were not vaccinated, as has been the case with the delta variant.

It is too early to say if the omicron variant is fitter than delta or if it will become dominant. Omicron shares some mutations with the delta variant but also possesses others that are quite different. But one area of concern is that the omicron variant has 10 mutations in the receptor-binding domain – the part of the spike protein that interacts with the ACE-2 receptor and mediates entry into cells – compared with just two for the delta variant.
Suppose the combination of all the mutations in omicron makes it either more transmissible or better at immune evasion than delta. In that case, we could see the spread of this variant globally. However, it is also possible that the unusually high number of mutations could be detrimental to the virus and make it unstable.

South African scientists reported that omicron appears more likely than earlier variants to cause reinfections among people who have already had a bout with COVID-19.

A research group has been tracking reinfections in South Africa and reported a jump with the arrival of omicron that they hadn’t seen when two previous variants, including the extra-contagious delta variant, moved through the country.

The findings, posted online Thursday, are preliminary and haven’t yet undergone scientific review. Nor did the researchers say what portion of the reinfections were confirmed as omicron cases — or whether they caused serious illness.

But the timing of the reinfection spike suggests that omicron “demonstrates substantial population-level evidence for evasion of immunity from prior infection,” they wrote.

“Previous infection used to protect against delta, and now with omicron it doesn’t seem to be the case,” one of the researchers, Anne von Gottberg of the University of Witwatersrand, said at a World Health Organization briefing on Thursday.

The study also did not examine the protection offered by vaccination. Coronavirus vaccines trigger different layers of immune response, some to fend off infection and others to prevent severe disease if someone does become infected.

“We believe that vaccines will still, however, protect against severe disease,” von Gottberg said.

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