Health authorities are concerned about yet another new COVID strain, the so-called Omicron variant, which is spreading rapidly in South Africa.
The variant was first identified in South Africa and it’s already been detected as far away as Hong Kong.
Scientists are now racing to figure out just how serious a threat the Omicron variant poses, and whether or not vaccines will be effective against the virus.
Associate Professor Stuart Turville heads a lab at the forefront of analysing new COVID strains in Australia as part of Kirby Institute’s immunovirology and pathogenesis program.
He told The New Daily that the new variant could be another Delta, and if so, it’s only a matter of time before it hits Australia.
But it could just as easily be a “fizzer”, Professor Turville added.
It’s early days. Here’s what we know so far.
It’s spreading faster
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is already outcompeting the Delta variant.
That means it appears to be spreading faster than any other variant we’ve seen so far, according to preliminary data.
The emergence of the Omicron variant has coincided with an increase in cases in South Africa.
Although it’s too early to know for sure, this could be triggering a new wave of cases in the country.
It has a lot of mutations
According to World Health Organisation chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the Omicron variant has “a number of worrying mutations” compared to previously detected strains.
So far scientists have identified more than 30 mutations in the Omicron variant, compared to the 13-17 mutations of the Delta variant.
Some of these mutations affect the virus’ spike proteins, which could make it better at evading our immune systems.
“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,” Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told reporters in South Africa.
“The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”
Will vaccines protect us from the Omicron variant?
Professor Turville said that most of the newer variants of COVID-19 “take the edge off” vaccine responses, and this could also be the case with the Omicron variant.
But that doesn’t mean that the vaccines are useless altogether, because they should still provide some level of protection.
The situation highlights the importance of booster shots, which are available now.
It also highlights vaccine inequality around the world.
In South Africa, where the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly, just 24 per cent of people are vaccinated.
Professor Turville said an even greater disparity exists between Australia and certain neighbouring countries in the Pacific, which makes them particularly vulnerable to new variants.
Addressing this is not just a moral issue, but a practical one, too.
“In order to corner this virus with vaccines, then we need to do that in places like Papua New Guinea, places like South Africa,” he said.
What does this mean for Australia?
Health Minister Greg Hunt said official recommendations would change if need be, adding that there’s nothing to be concerned about for now.
“The advice remains that the broad-spectrum nature of the vaccines is likely to cover emerging variants, and that’s been the case with Delta, and that’s been the case with other variants that have emerged,” Mr Hunt told reporters on Friday.
More than 86 per cent of Australians aged 16 and up are fully vaccinated, while 93 percent have had at least one dose.
Firstly, we wait.
Scientists around the world are racing to analyse the Omicron variant, but this takes time.
It can take a week or more to even grow enough virus cultures to be shared with other scientists.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on South Africa, where scientist expect real-world data to be available in two to three weeks at the soonest.
“People are looking very, very closely at the areas where it is expanding,” Professor Turville told TND.
“That will give us the gold standard observations of whether or not a variant is worrisome.”