New Corona variant: What is known about Omikron


Status: 11/29/2021 12:05 p.m.

The Corona variant Omikron worries experts. What is known so far about B.1.1.529? What do we know about the effectiveness of vaccines? The most important questions and answers.

How dangerous is Omicron?

At this point in time, it is still unclear what consequences the variant actually has. The head of virology at the Berlin Charité, Christian Drosten, says: “Nobody can say at the moment what is in store for us.” So far, experts have not been able to say for sure whether the variant is really more contagious than the delta variant, for example. The data situation is still too thin for that, even if there are some indications.

It is also unclear how serious the cases will be. The chairman of the South African Medical Association, Angélique Coetzee, told the BBC that the symptoms of the new variant, while unusual, were mild. However, the studies on this variant are still at a very early stage. “Patients mostly complain of body aches and pains and fatigue, extreme fatigue, and we see it in the younger generation, not the elderly,” she said. These are not patients who would be admitted directly to a hospital, said Coetzee. She told the Telegraph that one had to worry that the new variant could hit older people who also suffered from diabetes or heart disease much harder.

Reports of mild courses do not yet have a lot of substance in view of only a good 1000 cases, but Drosten restricts it. “I’m pretty worried at the moment,” said the virologist in the ZDF “heute journal”.

Researchers in Hong Kong are concerned that the two people infected there have a very high viral load, which in turn facilitates the transmission of the pathogen. In Hong Kong, a person who tested positive for the Omicron variant in a quarantine hotel infected a person in the opposite room because he may not have worn an adequate face mask when accepting food at his hotel door.

Where has the variant appeared so far?

The variant B.1.1.529 – which was named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization – was detected for the first time recently in Botswana. Since then, it seems to have spread mainly in South Africa, with a particularly high number of cases being detected in Gauteng Province.

Omikron cases have already been found in numerous countries, including Germany. Many countries have already imposed travel restrictions.

Japan wants to ban the entry of foreigners because of the spread of the omicron variant of the corona virus.

Carsten Watzl, German Society for Immunology, on the new Corona mutant Omikron

Daily topics 00:30 a.m., 11/27/2021

Why is the concern so great?

The scientist Susan Hopkins of Imperial College London describes the new variant as “the most worrying that we have ever seen.” The reason: In the past few weeks, the number of infections in South Africa has been at a relatively low level, but the number of cases has risen sharply in a short time, especially in the Gauteng Province. Sequencing made it clear: Almost all samples from this region came from the new variant B.1.1.529. As in Europe, the delta variant was predominant in South Africa. It is considered to be significantly more contagious than any previous variant of the coronavirus.

Richard Neher, head of the research group “Evolution of Viruses and Bacteria” at the University of Basel, explains that it is quite conceivable that the new Omicron variant is very transferable. “The variant seems to prevail against Delta in South Africa. However, the number of cases in South Africa is currently quite low, which makes the interpretation difficult. Under which conditions this variant is transmitted faster than Delta is not clear at the moment. The next few days will hopefully be more here Provide answers. ” The variant came unexpectedly, the combination of mutations in its genome is “remarkable” according to the researcher.

How does the Omikron variant differ from the others?

Experts are particularly concerned about the genetic changes in the virus. Because the new Omicron variant differs significantly from the previous ones: More than 30 mutations were found in the spike protein on the surface of the virus. The spike protein plays an important role in enabling the virus to penetrate human cells and infect them. Mutations in the spike protein already made the delta variant more contagious. According to the Robert Koch Institute, there are also many mutations, the meaning of which is still unclear.

Another problem: the currently approved vaccines train the immune system to recognize the spike protein. However, if this protein changes significantly, it could make the vaccinations less effective.

What about vaccination protection?

“The only thing you can really say with certainty is that it is better when you are vaccinated. It is even better when you are boosted,” says Drosten. But there is great concern that the Omicron variant is a real “Immunescape variant”. Immunescape means that Omikron could bypass an immune defense built up against other Sars-CoV-2 variants. According to Drosten, the genome changes in the pathogen indicate that Omikron could evade the immune system. “Changes in the genome are not enough on their own to speak of a worrying situation,” explained Drosten. In addition, it must be clear that the virus is spreading faster or has other changed properties, for example a more severe course of the disease.

The immunologist Watzl says that some of the mutations in Omikron are already known from other variants, which the vaccines somewhat escaped. This means that the protection against infection against Omikron could perhaps be somewhat weakened. The protection against a serious illness is probably still very high.

Richard Neher from the University of Basel assumes that there will also be vaccination protection against the Omikron variant, since the vaccines are efficient against all previous variants. “The T-cell response in particular should be robust to the changes. However, it is quite conceivable that there will be more breakthrough infections, so that a third dose becomes all the more important.”

The Munich virologist Ulrike Protzer said it was possible that antibodies could no longer neutralize the newly discovered variant as efficiently. But freshly after a vaccination there are many antibodies – that is enough to “neutralize away” variants. And when the vaccination was a while ago, booster vaccinations could “boost” the immune system. It is not yet possible to say whether you will need another vaccination later or an adapted vaccine.

Why is the variant called Omikron?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for the designation. According to her own information, she takes care to avoid misunderstandings and stigmatization. For some time now, new variants have been named using the Greek alphabet.

Before Omikron it would have been the turn of the letters Ny and Xi. Ny, which means Nu in English, sounds too much like “new” and would therefore have been misleading, according to the WHO. “Xi was not used because it is a common surname,” said the WHO.

Virus names should not harm ethnic or regional groups, argued the UN organization. The name Xi does exist in China and in countries with a Han Chinese population, but it does not occur frequently there. But there is one very important bearer of the name: the Chinese head of state Xi Jinping.

With information from Veronika Simon, SWR

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