As the omicron coronavirus variant spreads throughout southern Africa and then appears in countries all over the world, scientists are anxiously awaiting the outcome of a battle that could determine the course of the pandemic in the coming years. Is it possible for the newest competitor to the world-beating delta to dethrone it?
After poring over data from South Africa and the United Kingdom, some scientists believe omicron will emerge victorious.
Doctor Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School, said, “It’s still early, but data is starting to trickle in that suggests omicron is likely to outcompete delta in many, if not all, places.” “It’s still early, but increasingly, data is starting to trickle in that suggests omicron is likely to outcompete delta in many, if not all, places,” he said.
Others, however, said Monday that it is too soon to tell whether omicron will spread more quickly than delta, or, if it does, how quickly it will take over the world.
It’s likely that omicron will replace delta in the United States, where the virus is experiencing significant increases. “We’ll know in about two weeks whether omicron will replace delta,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic.
Many important questions about omicron remain unanswered, including whether the virus causes milder or more severe illness, and to what extent it may be able to evade immunity from previous COVID-19 illnesses or vaccines, among others.
When it comes to the issue of spread, scientists point to what is taking place in South Africa, where omicron was initially discovered. Because of the speed with which Omicron infects people and achieves near dominance in South Africa, health experts are concerned that the country is at the beginning of a new wave that will eventually overwhelm hospitals.
South Africa went from a period of low transmission, with an average of less than 200 new cases per day in mid-November, to a period of high transmission, with an average of more than 16,000 new cases per day over the weekend, thanks to the new variant. According to experts, Omicron is responsible for more than 90 percent of all new cases in Gauteng province, which is considered the epicenter of the new wave. The new variant is rapidly spreading throughout South Africa’s eight other provinces, and it is quickly gaining dominance.
In the words of Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, “the virus is spreading extraordinarily quickly and very rapidly.” The slopes of this wave, which we’re currently in, are significantly steeper than those of the previous three waves that South Africa has experienced,” says the expert. This indicates that the virus is spreading quickly, and it may therefore be a highly transmissible virus.”
The co-chair of the South African COVID-19 Variants Research Consortium, Hanekom, says that because South Africa had such a low number of delta cases when omicron first appeared, “I don’t think we can say” that it outcompeted delta in terms of genetic mutations.
In the opinion of scientists, it is uncertain whether omicron will behave in the same manner in other countries as it has in South Africa. In places like the United Kingdom, where there is a lot of genomic sequencing, Lemieux said, “we’re seeing what appears to be a signal of exponential increase of omicron over delta,” which indicates that the virus is spreading exponentially.
As in the rest of the world, “there is still a great deal of uncertainty,” he said, referring to the United States specifically. After putting all of the early data together, a consistent picture begins to emerge: that Omicron has already arrived, and based on what we’ve seen in South Africa, it is likely to become the dominant strain in the coming weeks and months, resulting a spike in the number of reported cases.
It remains to be seen what impact this will have on public health in the future. Hanekom stated that preliminary data from South Africa indicates that reinfection rates with omicron are significantly higher than with previous variants, suggesting that the virus is evading immunity to some extent. The data also demonstrates that the virus appears to be infecting younger people, primarily those who have not been vaccinated, and that the majority of cases in hospitals have been relatively mild.
In contrast, Binnicker asserted that things could play out differently in other parts of the world or among different types of patients. In the future, he says, “it will be very interesting to see what happens when more infections occur in older adults or those who have underlying health conditions.” “Can you tell me about the outcome in those patients?”
While the world waits for answers, scientists advise people to take every precaution they can to keep themselves safe.
Vaccination immunity should be maximized, so that people have the greatest amount of protection possible. In other words, if people aren’t already vaccinated, they should get them,” Lemieux said. When people are eligible for boosters, they should get boosters and then do all of the other things that we know are effective for reducing transmission — masking, social distancing, and avoiding large indoor gatherings, especially without masks — to further reduce transmission.