Amid global concern over a new strain of coronavirus, there has been hopeful news: People infected with the omicron variant appear to have “very mild” symptoms, according to the South African doctor who has spotted the variant for the first time.
Dr Angelique Coetzee told the BBC that neither she nor her colleagues had so far admitted someone with the strain to hospital. Her patients had experienced extreme fatigue but no loss of taste or smell, which are often telltale symptoms of Covid-19, she said.
Early reports are encouraging, epidemiologists and other experts said.
But they cautioned that there was too little data to draw conclusions yet. Their biggest concern, they said, is how quickly the omicron variant, with its high number of mutations, might spread and how it will compare to vaccines.
“I don’t think we know anything about virulence. What worries us the most is transmissibility and immune evasion capabilities, ”said Dr. Amesh Adalja, infectious disease physician and principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Adalja said he suspected the vaccination would still offer strong protection against serious illness, while unvaccinated people who have natural immunity to previous Covid infections may be at even greater risk of contracting the virus again.
“It may be that breakthrough infections or re-infections will become more common with this, but you are probably unlikely to see serious breakthrough infections become common in healthy people,” he said.
In the meantime, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are working to determine whether their vaccines will protect against the variant and are exploring ways to modify them if necessary.
With the omicron variant, it wasn’t just the number of mutations but also their location that caught the attention of researchers, said Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. . The variant has a number of cutting edge mutations never seen before.
“The antigen that we use in vaccines is specifically the spike protein, so there is always a concern that the more mutations you see in the spike protein, the more likely it is that it may escape the immunity provided. by the vaccine if it is different enough, ”he said. “We still don’t really know.
Mutations in the variant can also make it more contagious. In South Africa, new infections tripled last week. But only about 35 percent of adults in South Africa are fully vaccinated, compared to 70.9 percent of adults in the United States.
It remains to be seen whether the variant will spread so quickly in countries with the highest vaccination rates, said Ramon Lorenzo-Redondo, director of bioinformatics at the Center for Pathogen Genomics and Microbial Evolution at the Harvey Institute for Global Health and Assistant Research Professor of Infectious Disease Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
“It might not even take hold in other countries,” Lorenzo-Redondo said. “It is still too early to know if this variant will spread. Maybe other factors, like a higher vaccination, will stop this. “
The strain has so far been detected in the UK, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Belgium and a number of other countries, in addition to South Africa. Although it has yet to be found in the United States, the government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, said over the weekend that he would “not be surprised” if he was already circulating here.
Why there is no reason to panic
Despite the unknowns and the fact that the World Health Organization considers the omicron strain a “variant of concern,” the experts all had the same message: don’t panic.
“That’s what viruses do. They are mutating. This is normal, ”said Melissa Nolan, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. “This will not be the last worrying variation. There will be more as long as we still have unvaccinated people susceptible to disease. “
The same protective methods that have worked throughout the pandemic will continue to work, experts said, such as wearing masks and washing hands.
And although not everyone has access to vaccines in the world, those who have not been vaccinated in the United States should take the opportunity to be vaccinated, they said.
“It’s another reminder that if you didn’t get your vaccine, you should,” Nolan said. “If you are fully immunized and boosted, you are probably fine.”