The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 in November 2021 called B.1.1.529 or Omicron, classifying it as a Variant of Concern (VOC). First detected in Botswana, a country in the centre of Southern Africa, the new variant appears to be heavily mutated. What made global health agencies worried was the speed of its spread. In South Africa, the UK, and Denmark – countries with high immunity against COVID – Omicron cases have been growing very quickly. According to reports, every person with Omicron has been infecting 3–3.5 others, almost the same as when the coronavirus spread in early 2020. Omicron has now gained a foothold in Asia, Africa, America, West Asia, Europe, and South Africa.
The global health agencies are working hard to learn more about Omicron. As per the WHO, early data indicates that the Omicron variant may more easily reinfect people who have already had the virus or been vaccinated as compared to the previous variants, but could only cause milder disease. The new variant’s ability to escape immune protection has caused concern among the global health agencies.
Most of those who tested positive in India have either recently arrived from African countries or were in contact with such people. Amid the debate on whether the variant can lead to a massive surge in re-infections, state governments are leaving nothing to chance by making preparations ahead. The preventive measures include higher screening/testing and quarantining of travelers.
Health experts have reiterated the importance of vaccination to combat the new variant. Vaccination helps provide protection against severe outcomes like hospitalization and death. With a major chunk of the population getting vaccinated, there is less chance for the coronavirus to evolve into a potentially threatening one.
Medical experts have claimed that a good booster dose would lessen the chance of infection, especially severe disease. Notably, a booster shot has already been approved in the UK and the US while it is still under study in India.
The RT-PCR test is useful in detecting the presence of specific genetic material in a pathogen. According to medical researchers, the test targets “multiple genes” of the virus to cover a broad range of variants. For instance, ‘S’ Gene, ORF, ‘N’ gene and ‘E’ genes are the ones to detect the COVID-19 virus. In the case of Omicron, the ‘S’ gene is not getting detected due to the mutation. These are called ‘S’ Gene Target Failure (SGTF) positive cases. These samples are presumptively reported as Omicron positive and can be sent for fast-track genome sequencing for confirmation.
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