Explaining Omicron variant

Health Watch
National Pandemic Response Controller David Manning last Tuesday announced that PNG had recorded its first Coronavirus (Covid-19) Omicron variant case. Vismita Gupta-Smith and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organisation (WHO) discuss what the Omicron variant is. Is it more severe, more transmissible? How can people protect themselves from it?

Gupta-Smith: What do we know so far about the transmissibility of Omicron?

Kerkhove: We’re learning a lot about the Omicron variant every day. In terms of transmissibility, we are seeing an increased growth rate of Omicron over other variants of concern.
These are some of the sharpest increases that we’ve seen to date. We do know that it has what we call a growth advantage over Delta.
What this means is that we’re seeing a large increase in cases where Omicron is detected. Omicron has been detected in more than 77 countries, but it’s likely that it’s present in other countries as well.
The big question right now is how will Omicron compete with other variants that are circulating in populations?
For example, will Omicron outcompete Delta? It’s still a little bit early for us to have a full understanding, but, what we can say is that some of the mutations that are identified in Omicron will provide a growth advantage, will allow it to be more transmissible.
So, this is a concern that we have and as we know, more cases, if there’s more increased transmissibility, which is what we are seeing, we’ll have more cases.
More cases mean more hospitalisations and more hospitalisations can put health care systems that are already overburdened into a state where people will not get the appropriate care that they need.

Gupta-Smith: Does Omicron cause more severe disease? What are the symptoms we are seeing so far?
Kerkhove: We’re still learning about its severity as well. We do know that people with Omicron can have the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic infection, mild infection, people needing hospitalisation, and people have died from Omicron.
We do have initial reports that suggest that Omicron is less severe compared to Delta.
However, if again, we have more cases, mean more hospitalisations, and if a health care system is overburdened, people will die because they won’t get the appropriate care that they need.
So, it’s early to tell whether or not Omicron is more or less severe, but we do have some initial reports that it is less severe. Now, don’t be fooled.
Even if we have a virus that causes less severe disease, this virus can affect vulnerable populations.
We know people with underlying conditions, people of advanced age, if they are infected with any variant of Sars-Cov-2, including Omicron, they are at an increased risk of developing severe disease.
So, it is critical that if we do see more mild disease, we still do everything that we can to reduce transmission in all populations, people who are vaccinated, as well as people who are not vaccinated.
In terms of disease presentation, there are many studies that are underway that are looking at this and people who are infected with Omicron compared to other variants.
We have not seen a change in the disease profile. For example, we haven’t seen a change in the symptoms that people present with Omicron compared to Delta.
So you won’t be able to tell the difference. So, the best thing for you to do is to keep yourself safe, get vaccinated when you can and make sure that you take steps to reduce your exposure to this virus.

Gupta-Smith: What can people do to protect themselves against Omicron? What about the current batch of vaccines?
Kerkhove: There are many things that people can do to keep themselves safe. First, get vaccinated. Now there are many studies that are underway that are looking at vaccine effectiveness against Omicron.
We don’t have that complete picture yet, but what we do know is that it is better to be vaccinated than not.
What is critical in all countries is that those people who are at risk, those who are over the age of 60, those who have underlying conditions, receive their vaccines and making sure they get their first and second doses.
It’s critical that everybody get vaccinated when it’s their turn.
At the same time, while we increase vaccination coverage among those who are most at risk in all countries, we also have to take steps to drive transmission down everywhere.
This is using simple measures: social distancing, wearing of face mask with clean hands, avoiding crowds, improving ventilation, where we work, where we study.
The biggest factor right now is making sure you reduce your exposure to the virus, no matter what variant is circulating.
Everything we do right now, Delta variant is dominant worldwide, that needs to be brought under control, and everything that we do right now for Delta will benefit Omicron no matter how it unfolds, no matter what we learn about it.
So, do your best to keep yourself safe. Get vaccinated when you can and make sure that you reduce your exposure to this virus where you live. – WHO