Yesterday I alluded to the potential significance of a COVID-19 variant that escapes current immune protection from prior infection or vaccines. I also placed a link in the article to a report of a new variant from South Africa (B.1.1.529), which had the type of spike protein mutations that might raise concerns about immune evasion.
Today, with breakneck speed, panic surrounding the new variant spread much more quickly than the virus itself. Stock markets tanked, boarders closed, “Experts” made predictions about the spread of this new variant, and public health modelers created graphs that suggested the virus could be transmitted 500 times more efficiently than the original COVID-19 virus and 70 times more than the Delta variant currently causing infections.
While the discovery of a new variant with unusual mutations will raise concerns, there is no definitive data that this virus will be more problematic than the ones we’re currently dealing with. An expert in viral genomics put it best in the WSJ.
“There are several aspects of concern here, but there are lots of unknowns,” Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genetics U.K. Consortium, said at a press briefing on Friday. “It’s so important to stress how much we don’t know at the moment about this new variant.”
The World Health Organization on Friday designated it a “variant of concern” and named it Omicron for the Greek letter. The WHO stated it had evidence of “a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology.” The agency said preliminary evidence suggests the variant might pose an increased risk of re-infection, compared with other variants of concern, and asked countries to increase surveillance and sequencing and to report initial cases.
Despite the panic there is currently no specific information documenting that this virus can escape immune protection. In fact, the best way to protect against this virus is vaccination because even if you develop a re-infection having some immunity will likely shorten the infection and ease your symptoms.
What is interesting is that this virus reportedly arose in an HIV infected individual with poor immunity, which reportedly allowed the virus to stay in the body a long time and mutate. Also, initial reports on cases in other parts of the world were in unvaccinated individuals.
This last issue highlights that the best way to prevent the development of new variants is to vaccinate EVERYONE worldwide!