Explosive & Nearing Dominance: What the Data Out of South Africa is Telling Us About Omicron
22:27 GMT 03.12.2021 (Updated: 12:53 GMT 10.11.2022)
The omicron variant of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, first identified in South Africa, has quickly spread throughout the world. Cases have emerged in Europe, the United States, Australia, and China. The World Health Organization has labeled it a variant of concern.
The World Health Organization's (WHO) chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, believes the omicron variant has the potential to become the dominant covid variant. Data from South Africa shows the number of cases doubling daily, and in November, 73% of sequenced covid cases were omicron.
Tulio de Oliveira, a public health professor in South Africa, said, “Omicron is probably the fastest-spreading variant that South Africa has ever seen.”
The explosive growth in cases indicates that it is highly transmissible. Delta makes up 99% of the world’s covid cases, but omicron’s rapid rise in South Africa is significant evidence that it could become the dominant variant in 2022. Within a few months, scientists from the European Union and Australia are projecting omicron to cause more infections than the delta strain.
While preliminary data suggests that omicron is highly transmissible, many infections have presented less severe symptoms, or, reportedly, no symptoms at all. The WHO said that no deaths have been reported from omicron, but there is not enough data to conclude that the variant is mild.
Omicron also appears to be more resilient against natural immunity. Scientists from South Africa conducted a statistical study that suggests that omicron is three times more likely to reinfect individuals than previous covid variants. The study analyzed 2.8 million positive coronavirus samples from South Africa, of which 35,670 were believed to be reinfections. The scientists did not have access to vaccination data.
Further research is necessary to determine if omicron is more transmissible, lethal, or resistant to vaccines, treatments, and natural immunity than other variants. However, the early indications are that it is highly transmissible and avoids natural immunity.
The WHO has yet to determine if omicron will require a new vaccine or boosters to counter. Only 30% of South Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, which makes it difficult for researchers to determine to what degree vaccines protect individuals from the new variant.
The WHO told vaccine makers they should be prepared to tweak their current covid vaccines. However, a new vaccine may not be needed for omicron, but could be necessary for another variant.
The CEO of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, said, "I believe in principle at a certain timepoint we will need a new vaccine against this new variant." Sahin added that BioNTech has the capacity to quickly adapt its vaccine in response to omicron.
Omicron in the US
Cases of omicron have been reported all over the US. The United States has joined the United Kingdom and other nations in implementing travel restrictions on countries in southern Africa.
According to the New York Times’ COVID-19 tracker, cases and hospitalizations in the US are rising and the average number of daily covid deaths has crept back up to over 1,000.
The Biden administration has continued to push to get all Americans vaccinated. Only 60% of the adult population is fully vaccinated, a figure much lower than most developed nations. With the emergence of omicron, it’s possible that booster shots will become a central tenet of the US response.