The delta variant has been the dominant strain in the United States and many parts of the world for months, but it is in danger of being dethroned by the newly emerged B.1.1.529 variant that the World Health Organization dubbed as omicron and classified as a variant of concern last week. With the sudden appearance of the heavily mutated strain, experts are scrambling to know if it is more dangerous than the delta variant and if its characteristics make it a very virulent virus that could force the whole world to come to a standstill once again.

Omicron Under The Spotlight

It hasn’t been that long since the first case of omicron infection was reported in South Africa, but the variant has now become one of the most intriguing strains to come out amid the pandemic. Researchers and medical experts are still determining the peculiarities of the newly emerged variant by evaluating its transmissibility, severity and reinfection risk. While studies on omicron are still underway, the medical community is forced to make do with what is already known about the variant based on preliminary data and anecdotal reports from the frontline workers in South Africa.

When WHO classified omicron as a variant of concern late last month, the organization pointed out that the strain came to be after the virus underwent several mutations. The mutations were also said to have likely caused SARS-CoV-2 to behave differently, with early evidence suggesting that omicron may have a growth advantage over the previous variants based on how fast the rate of surges in South Africa has been in the recent weeks. The transmissibility of the strain was one of the main reasons behind WHO’s decision to classify it as a variant of concern.

Louisiana State University Health Shreveport associate professor of microbiology and immunology Jeremy Kamil told NBC News this week that after examining B.1.1.529, he realized just how different the new variant is compared to the first strain of SARS-CoV-2 that emerged in late 2019. According to him, omicron has more than 30 mutations in its spike proteins, the part that makes it possible for the virus to penetrate host cells. Because of their role in the process of infection, spike proteins are the main targets of the vaccines against COVID-19. Given the mutations, experts are worried that the vaccines might not be effective against the new strain.

Omicron vs. Delta

As of late, the delta variant remains to be the dominant strain in the U.S. and many other countries. The verdict is still out on whether or not omicron is more infectious than delta, but, theoretically speaking, based on what’s known about the spike protein mutations, researchers are leaning toward the idea of omicron being more contagious than the dominant strain. Some experts have already predicted omicron to outcompete delta in a matter of time once it reaches more places. In South Africa, it’s too early to tell if omicron has already surpassed delta cases as local scientists still need more time to assess the situation there and collect more data from patients, as per Reuters.

Omicron has been compared to beta and gamma since they share several key mutations that make them less vulnerable to the COVID-19 vaccines. On the other hand, clinical trials have shown that the vaccines are about 90% effective against the delta variant. Aside from possibly being able to evade vaccines and the body’s natural immunity from a previous COVID-19 infection, omicron was found to have about six times higher potential to spread than the delta strain, as reported by the Times of India. Despite the alarming tone of the initial findings, there is hope that omicron wouldn’t be as big of a problem as the delta variant — previously dubbed as the most dangerous strain for being highly contagious and causing more severe illness in COVID-19 patients.

A frontline doctor in South Africa told the BBC earlier this week that so far, the patients they have encountered with the omicron strain presented “extremely mild symptoms” of the infection. South African Medical Association chair Angelique Coetzee, MD, said that the first omicron-infected patient they encountered experienced extreme tiredness, body aches and pains, a bit of a headache and a scratchy throat. Interestingly, the 30-year-old did not have cough or loss of taste and smell. Other patients found to have the same variant manifested similar symptoms. Dr. Coetzee and other local medical experts noted that most of the patients were unvaccinated.

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