As the omicron coronavirus strain spreads throughout southern Africa and into nations across the world, scientists are keeping a close eye on a struggle that might determine the pandemic’s fate. Can the world’s most powerful delta be dethroned by its newest challenger?
Some experts believe omicron will win after analyzing data from South Africa and the United Kingdom.
“It’s still early days,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who tracks variations for a Harvard Medical School-led research team. “But increasingly, evidence is starting to come in, showing that omicron is likely to outcompete delta in many, if not all, regions.”
Others, though, cautioned Monday that it’s too early to tell if omicron will spread faster than delta or, if it does, how quickly it would take over.
“Whether omicron will replace delta, especially here in the United States, where we’re seeing huge spikes in delta, I think we’ll know in about two weeks,” said Matthew Binnicker, head of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Many important concerns concerning omicron remain unsolved, such as whether the virus produces lesser or more severe disease, and how well it can circumvent protection from previous COVID-19 infections or immunizations.
Scientists refer to what’s happening in South Africa, where omicron was initially discovered, as an example of dissemination. The speed with which Omicron infects individuals and gains near-total domination in South Africa has health experts concerned that the country is on the verge of a fresh wave that might overwhelm hospitals.
South Africa went from a period of minimal transmission, with less than 200 new cases per day in mid-November, to more over 16,000 per day over the weekend, thanks to the new variation. According to scientists, Omicron is responsible for more than 90% of new cases in Gauteng province, the hub of the latest wave. In South Africa’s eight other provinces, the new type is quickly spreading and gaining supremacy.
Willem Hanekom, head of the Africa Health Research Institute, said, “The virus is spreading really quickly.” “If you look at the slopes of this wave that we’re in right now, they’re a lot steeper than the previous three waves that South Africa had to deal with.” This suggests that it’s spreading quickly, implying that it’s a highly transmissible virus.”
However, Hanekom, who is also the co-chair of the South African COVID-19 Variants Research Consortium, noted that because the number of delta instances in South Africa was so low when omicron first appeared, “I don’t think we can argue” that it out-competed delta.
It’s unknown whether omicron will behave the same way in other nations as it did in South Africa, according to scientists. There are already some signs about how it could behave, according to Lemieux: “We’re seeing what looks to be a signal of exponential rise of omicron over delta” in areas like the United Kingdom, which undertakes a lot of genome sequencing.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty” in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, he added. “However, when you combine the early data, a consistent picture emerges: omicron is already here, and based on what we’ve seen in South Africa, it’s likely to become the dominant strain in the next weeks and months, causing a jump in case numbers.”
It remains to be seen what this means for public health. Early evidence from South Africa suggests that omicron has a substantially greater incidence of reinfection than prior forms, suggesting that the virus is evading immunity. It also reveals that the virus appears to be attacking younger people, mostly those who have not been vaccinated, and that the majority of cases in hospitals have been mild.
But, according to Binnicker, things may play out differently in other regions of the world or among various patient groups. “It’ll be fascinating to watch what happens if more infections arise in elderly folks or those with underlying health problems,” he added. “How did those patients turn out?”
Scientists recommend that individuals do everything they can to safeguard themselves as the world waits for answers.
“We want to make sure individuals have as much vaccine immunity as possible.” So, if they aren’t vaccinated, they should be,” Lemieux added. “If people are eligible for boosters, they should obtain boosters and then do all the other things we know work for decreasing transmission, such as masking and social distance, as well as avoiding big indoor gatherings, especially without masks.”