FOLLOWING the detection of the Omicron or B.1.1.529 variant by South African scientists three weeks ago, it has emerged that the new strain could be infecting more people within a short space of time compared to the Delta strain which at some point was touted as the fastest growing variant.
By Michael Gwarisa
The Omicron variant, a highly mutated strain whose impact is feared could evade vaccine induced immunity and probably cause more severe symptoms, has to date been reported in 63 countries across the globe and in all continents excluding Antarctica.
The World Health Organization (WHO), declared the Omincron a variant of concern in November due to its different behavior compared to previously reported strains. To date five variants, including the Omicron have been designated variants of concern. However, it is the speed at which the Omicron is infecting people that has gotten scientist concerned the world over.
Speaking to Journalists from across East and Southern Africa during a Cross Boarder Science Café, the World Health Organization Zimbabwe Country Representative, Dr Alex Gasasira said the genetic sequencing rate in Zimbabwe was still very low hence it was too early to tell where our infections could be coming from.
We know that countries like South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Eswathini are also seeing large increases in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. We may all know that for example in Zimbabwe now, last week, we recorded 28 000 news cases. This is the highest number of cases reported in a single week’s time since the pandemic started. The previous highest number of cases recorded in one week was around 15 000 and this was mid-July this year at the height of the third wave.
“In Zimbabwe, we are not sequencing as much as we expect. The government and ministry of health and the government of Zimbabwe and partners are doing their best but we are not sequencing a very large number of samples. This means we can only postulate that the very rapid increase in cases is because of the new variant,” said Dr Gasasira.
He added that a number of studies are ongoing to understand the characteristics of the Omicron variant in a much more scientific and systematic way.
“Additional samples have been collected in Zimbabwe and they are being sent to the labs that have the capacity to do Genetic Sequencing including here in Zimbabwe. So we expect in the coming weeks to have confirmation that yes, the majority of cases that we are seeing here are due to the new Omicron. What we already know is that this variant is growing much faster than the previously highly transmissible variant Delta. Omicron is really growing much faster in South Africa and even in the United Kingdom (UK) than Delta.”
Speaking on whether the Omicron can Infect People who have COVID-19 Before, Dr Gasasira said there were preliminary information that is coming out from the studies which seem to suggest that there is a higher rate of reinfection. The data shows that people who have had previous infection with COVID-19 seem to be more affected by the new variant than the previous variants which we have had before. He however said there is still has to be validated by more analysis.
Meanwhile, speaking on booster shots to get full protection form Omicron, the Gasasira indicated that this was still preliminary, scientists across the world are working flat out get the robust scientific data to confirm this.
“In terms of the clinical picture, any of the cases that been confirmed to be infected by Omicron to date have had mild illness that what has been the case in the earlier variants. Again as scientists we need much more robust data to which we may clinical. We all know that most people get severely ill after doing their second week or initial days of the illness.
“In this case, we will be more confident in the coming week or so to really understand and confirm that indeed it is true that this variant is causing milder illness than the previous variants that we have known.”