Thirteen people who flew to Amsterdam from South Africa have a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 – Omicron – the Dutch Ministry of Health announced on Sunday 28 November 2021. A total of 61 passengers traveling from South Africa were infected with the coronavirus. “This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” assessed the Dutch Health Minister.
Should you be more afraid of the new variant than the previous ones? Scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences in the statement on November 27, 2021, write that “we are currently unable to estimate the real degree of threat”. Only a comparison of clinical data and data from the laboratory will allow to assess the risk associated with the new variant. Fears may turn out to be premature.
However, they emphasize that “universal vaccination significantly reduces the risk of the emergence of new variants.” A new variant has emerged in Africa, where the percentage of vaccinated people is significantly lower than in European countries.
“From the beginning, we said that if we did not stop the pandemic quickly, new, dangerous variants could emerge, which could set us back up to a year in time. South Africa is very specific: there is just over 20 percent of the population. vaccinated, but a lot of convalescents ”- said OKO.press prof. Krzysztof Pyrć, virologist from the Jagiellonian University.
When asked what to do in connection with the new variant, scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences answer:
- Anyone who is not yet vaccinated should seriously consider immunization, and those who are already vaccinated should receive a third dose of vaccine whenever possible.
- If we come back from another country, we should carry out a virus test.
- Let’s use the principles of distance, wearing masks and airing the rooms – these activities protect us against all, even the most dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2 and more.
The world is closing in again
Omicron identified on Wednesday. Since then, several countries have confirmed cases of contamination with the new variant: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, the UK and Italy, and now the Netherlands.
At the same time, more and more countries are restoring restrictions – most of all stopping flights from Africa.
Israel went the farthest: on Saturday, the authorities suspended all foreign flights to the country for two weeks. The ban on flights from South Africa and some other African countries was introduced, among others, by Brazil, Canada, the United States, Australia, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan.
In the UK, mandatory PCR testing has been reintroduced upon arrival, and masks will have to be worn again in public places from Tuesday.
Are these actions not premature?
Polish scientists reply: “Such an early response may delay the onset of a potential wave of infections and thus allow time to conduct analyzes or even create a new version of the vaccine.”
Will vaccines cope with Omicron?
Omicron disturbed the scientists. It has, as we wrote after Nature, “as many as 30 changes in the peak protein that recognize the host cells and which our immune response is directed at.”
There are opinions that for this reason current vaccines may not be as effective in his case as they were before. He said this, among others British Health Minister Sajid Javid.
When comments appeared on Friday that mRNA vaccines could deal more effectively with Omicron, the stocks of the companies that make them surged (Moderna, Pfizer).
Scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences: The virus learns. Let’s vaccinate!
Recently, there has been information that B.1.1.529 Omicron, a new, potentially dangerous variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has been discovered. The European Commission is considering a flight ban to countries with this variant. Some of the countries, incl. Britain, Italy and the United States have already taken such steps.
The United States has imposed travel restrictions from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho and Eswatini. Do we have cause for concern?
New position of the COVID-19 team at the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences
The first instance of a new variant was recorded in 5 Botswana samples taken on November 11, the full sequence of which was made available in recent days. Sequence analysis showed that this virus has an accumulation of mutations that can be disturbing.
For the earlier variants, there were usually only one of these changes, and they were still associated with an increasing ability to move between people and avoid an immune response.
At present, it is not yet known to what extent these changes will affect the characteristics of this variant; its ability to move, avoid an immune response, or cause severe disease.
Although we know the genome sequence of the virus, we do not yet have the complete virus isolated, which would allow us to obtain the first data on its exact properties.
Certain types of immunodeficiencies may promote long-term, even months of SARS-CoV-2 replication.
By replicating over a long period of time, the virus learns how our immune system works and successively creates variants that escape its pressure. We can only assume that this situation may have contributed to the development of the Omicron variant.
What is worrying about Omicron option B.1.1.529 is the fact that in South Africa it became the majority option in just a few days, replacing the earlier delta option.
This may indicate a better transmissivity, but currently a small number of cases are observed in the region, so even a single outbreak caused by a given variant may significantly disturb the proportion of individual variants in the population.
The emergence of such variants has already been observed in the past, but despite initial concerns, they did not cause pandemic waves or a real global threat (e.g. gamma or lambda variants).
As we are currently unable to estimate the real extent of the threat, there is a debate about how to respond adequately to it. The European Commission is considering limiting air traffic with countries where this option is starting to dominate.
Such an early response may delay the onset of a potential wave of infection and thus allow time for analysis or even the development of a new version of the vaccine.
While South Africa is currently the largest hotspot, reports are also pouring in from other parts of the world.
The first information about the clinical picture of the infection and the amount of virus in the respiratory tract of patients can be expected in the coming days. Information about the spread of the virus in different countries will appear at the same time.
In the next step, scientists will check whether the immune response produced in the body after vaccination or after disease protects against a new threat. They will also check how changes in the virus’s RNA are reflected in its properties – the ability to infect, the speed at which it multiplies, and the ability to produce progeny viruses.
Comparing these clinical data with laboratory data will allow for a more accurate risk assessment, but now you need to prepare for the risk so that you can take decisive action quickly if necessary.
From the beginning of the pandemic, we were afraid of the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 variant, which is easy to transfer between people and bypassed post-vaccination or post-vaccination immunity. In the past, scientists have signaled such a threat several times, and perhaps this time our fears are premature.
However, it is certain that by allowing the virus to spread freely, we increase the risk of such a variant.
What can we do right now? Anyone who is not yet vaccinated should seriously consider immunization, and those who are already vaccinated should receive a third dose of vaccine whenever possible.
Widespread vaccination significantly reduces the risk of the emergence of new variants. If we come back from another country, we should carry out a virus test.
Let’s use the principles of distance, wearing masks and airing the rooms – these activities protect us against all, even the most dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2 and more.
About the band
The interdisciplinary advisory team for COVID-19 was established at the Polish Academy of Sciences on June 30, 2020. The chairman of the group is the president of the Polish Academy of Sciences, prof. Jerzy Duszyński, and his deputy – prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University). The secretary is Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences).
The team members are also:
dr Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw),
prof. Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University),
prof. Radosław Owczuk (Medical University of Gdańsk),
dr hab. Anna Ochab-Marcinek (Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences),
dr Wojciech Paczos (Institute of Economics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Cardiff University),
dr hab. Magdalena Rosińska (National Institute of Public Health PZH – National Research Institute),
prof. Andrzej Rychard (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences),
dr hab. Tomasz Smiatacz (Medical University of Gdańsk).