COVID-19 Policy Update #386 - Omicron
I wasn't planning on sending out a COVID update today but then reports emerged of a new, worrisome variant. There are still a number of unanswered questions, but here is what we know so far.
The World Health Organization called an emergency meeting Friday to discuss a new coronavirus variant (B.1.1.529) first identified in South Africa and Botswana that is believed to be spreading faster than initially thought. WHO assigned it the name Omicron and classified it as a Variant of Concern. So far cases have been found in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.
First Detected in South Africa
The AP reports that South Africa saw just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, but then saw the number of new daily cases jump to 2,465. Scientists studied virus samples to better understand what was driving the surge of cases and discovered the new variant. South Africa's Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation noted that in less than two weeks, it now makes up 75% of all infections (the dark blue color).
The Financial Times visualizes it this way:
Why Are Scientists Concerned?
The variant has more than 50 mutations, including 32 in the spike protein which the Times of London describes as "the tool a virus uses to enter cells, and the part of it our vaccines are trained to spot." The 32 mutations means it "would look different to our immune system and behave differently when attacking a body."
A virologist at Imperial College said it was a “horrific spike profile”. Katelyn Jetelina says, "This is an insane amount of change. As a comparison, Delta had 9 changes on the spike protein."
Jeffrey Barrett, who leads the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Sanger Institute breaks down the mutations. Mia Malan also provides a helpful analysis.
Andy Slavitt with a good thread, “In situations like this, it is useful to separate into what is known with good certainty, what is unknown, and what is being speculated.”
Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, explains why this is different from past variants and what questions still need to be answered.
“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen.” He said it was concerning that although the variant was only being detected in low levels in parts of South Africa, “it looks like it’s spreading rapidly.”
"This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility," UKHSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries said.
"What we do know is there's a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant. And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective." UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters.
As of Friday morning, countries that stopped or restricted flights from South Africa included Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, UK, the Philippines and Singapore. By 3:00pm on Friday, all 27 nations in the European Union imposed a temporary ban on air travel from southern Africa. The U.S. is expected to announce similar restrictions today.
CNBC's Meg Tirrell reports that:
Pfizer expects lab data within two weeks to determine if Omicron is an escape variant.
Pfizer says they can adapt mRNA vaccine within 6 weeks, ship initial batches within 100 days.
Moderna notes it's shown it can get into human trials within 60 days.
J&J is already testing the effectiveness of their vaccine against the new variant.