Omicron, the newly designated Variant of Concern of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 seems to have put a damper on the travel plans during this summer holidays.
According to WHO, Omicron is potentially more contagious and has set off alarm bells for a few reasons, the number of mutations it carries, particularly in the binding domain of the protein spike which is where the virus attaches to human cells and also the target for most vaccines, it’s emergence coinciding with a 10-fold increase in cases in South Africa in under a week.
South African Medical Association have reported a different pattern of symptoms and, importantly, a more mild disease, especially in the vaccinated. A strain that outcompetes Delta but causes more mild disease maybe the next step on our path to endemicity.
The Omicron started spreading around the world from Sunday 28 November, and has now been detected so far in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Canada, South Africa and USA.
The Australian federal government has announced new quarantine rules for Australians who have been in South Africa and several other countries to enter two weeks’ supervised quarantine.
Non-Australian citizens who’ve been to countries where Omicron has been detected cannot enter Australia for the time being.
At the moment people flying in are required to show their vaccine certificate and a negative PCR test, but they will now be asked to list which countries they have been to in the past 14 days.
Two international travellers in NSW quarantine have tested positive to the new Omicron Covid variant, becoming the first cases in Australia. So far eight people have been confirmed with Omicron infections.
Northern Territory health authorities were also running tests on an international arrival from South Africa who tested positive, and is now in quarantine.
Evidence suggests that the new Omicron (or B.1.1.529) variant may be more transmissible than the already highly transmissible Delta variant, with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control referencing the variant’s “immune escape potential and potentially increased transmissibility advantage compared to Delta”.
The mutations in Omicron with the change of the spike protein renders our immune systems unable to fully recognise it meaning there is a degree of immune escape for this variant and the vaccinated people from previous vaccine may be at risk of infection from Omicron.
Surges in new infections in South Africa have raised serious concerns about increased transmissibility of the new variant, particularly in younger people. The Delta variant that was first identified in India caused a widespread rise in cases across Australia, Europe and the US, where it surpassed the Alpha variant due to its ability to bind to human host cells quicker and with more affinity.
The rapid increase in cases in South Africa associated with Omicron, suggests the variant is able to outcompete Delta, a variant that is already highly transmissible.
According to the WHO, Omicron has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting this variant may have a growth advantage.