The past few weeks of eased restrictions might have made you forget, but we’re still in the thick of the pandemic. In fact, a new variant has emerged that has global authorities sounding the alarms once again. Here’s what we know so far about the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
UPDATED: December 15, 2021
What is the Omicron variant?
Named after a letter from the Greek alphabet, the Omicron variant, known as lineage B.1.1.529, is a new variant of SARS-CoV-2. When the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed its existence late in November, they immediately classified it as a variant of concern. The global government was thrown into a panic. Countries are considering closing borders once again, there are talks of going back to lockdown, and even the stock market has dipped.
Where did it originate from?
Omicron is not a ‘South African variant’, it’s a variant that was spotted & reported by brilliant South African scientists so fast the world has a chance to get on top of it. Could have originated anywhere.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) November 27, 2021
Omicron was first detected in South Africa, but that isn’t to say it’s the country of origin. Everyone knows COVID variants are probably spread far and wide before any laboratory detects them. It just so happens that South Africa was quick to react and inform the rest of the world.
Scientists are once again warning everyone that based on initial tests, Omicron has mutations that make it an even more highly transmissible variant. At this point, it’s safe to assume that as we go through the Greek alphabet of variants, the transmissibility gets even worse.
Which other countries has it been detected?
The new #COVID19 variant Omicron has now been detected in at least 13 territories globally. The WHO says it’s not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe illness.
— ABS-CBN News (@ABSCBNNews) November 29, 2021
Aside from South Africa, other countries with Omicron cases include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK. Some countries are closing their borders to foreign nationals again including Japan and Israel while some, like Britain, are imposing stricter testing measures.
In the Philippines, the local government has added countries to their list of inbound flight bans until December 15. The countries on the ‘red list‘ are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy. Even though Hong Kong has discovered cases of the variant, authorities have placed the country under our ‘yellow list’ which means arrivals must comply with the strict testing and quarantine protocols.
First two Omicron cases detected in the Philippines
The Department of Health (DOH) has detected the first two cases of Omicron in the Philippines on December 15 from two international travelers. Both are isolated and watched over by the Bureau of Quarantine. One is an OFW who arrived from Japan last December 1 and the other is a Nigerian national who arrived last November 30. Both patients are largely asymptomatic, only exhibiting coughs and colds.
South African doctor says it only produces “mild symptoms”
Good news for your morning.
“The new Omicron variant of the Coronavirus results in MILD disease, WITHOUT prominent symptoms.” -Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association.
— Chise 🧬🧫🦠💉🔜 MFF (@sailorrooscout) November 27, 2021
Should we panic? Doctors say we shouldn’t — yet. Dr. Angelique Coetzee is one of the first few doctors who suspected a new virus strain when her patients exhibited symptoms different from the Delta variant. She said on the week of November 18, an influx of patients came with almost the same symptoms: extreme fatigue, body aches, and headaches. From their experience, Omicron patients so far have not reported a loss of taste or smell or low oxygen levels.
“Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home,” said Dr. Coetzee.
Experts think the vaccine might not be effective for the Omicron variant
4) We need to first figure out how widespread it is, how well it escapes neutralizing antibodies (assumption: very well), what its R0 is, how well it does against Delta and if it can cause severe disease in vaccinated or recovered individuals.
— Florian Krammer (@florian_krammer) November 27, 2021
Unlike the widespread Alpha and Delta variants which medical professionals assured vaccines are effective against, it looks like Omicron is a bit different. Lab results have shown 32 mutations with Spike proteins that are different from the ones our vaccines are made to target. This led reports to speculate that the Omicron might be the “escape variant.” In the tweet thread above, virologist Florian Krammer tells facts: While we know little of Omicron yet, initial tests look like it’s an even worse threat than previous variants and even for the vaccinated.
For their part, Pfizer on November 26 assured everyone that they’re currently testing their vaccine against this new mutation. They are only waiting for two few weeks before sharing their findings. The company also said that if necessary, they can produce a vaccine that’s tailored for Omicron in 100 days. Moderna is also doing trials and lab tests for booster shots against the emerging variant.
There are no deaths yet
Is it possible #OmicronVariant sets us back to square one?
We have lots of tests that’ll detect Omicron
We have therapies that’ll work
Our vaccines MAY take a hit but will still provide some (may be a lot) protection
We are in a MUCH better place
This isn’t March 2020
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) November 28, 2021
Although Omicron has been tagged as a variant of concern, it’s still too early to see if it’s deadlier than the other VOCs. Experts are all saying the world will know in two to four weeks’ time, when tests have gone long enough to produce results. But so far, there have been no reports of deaths.
Looks like you’ll have to use face shields again
After local government lifted (literally) the nationwide face shield requirement, it looks like there are talks of bringing it back again. Authorities don’t want to take chances on the possibility of Omicron hitting the Philippines and crippling our healthcare system once more. For now, we’re free to walk around without face shields. But in two to four weeks’ time, that could change.
Even if there are only two confirmed cases in the Philippines, it might be safe to assume the Omicron variant is already around us. But there’s no need to panic. For now, we know that wearing masks, frequent hand washing, and keeping our distance is still the safest way to contain the surge. We have to keep this in mind especially with the upcoming holidays where gatherings can’t be helped. Until we know everything we can about the Omicron variant, be on high alert. It’s better to be “OA” than sorry.