What do we know about Omicron?
By Jan. 2022, Covid-19 has affected over 315 million people worldwide, killing more than 5 million in its wake. Since discovering the original SARS-CoV-2 virus at the end of 2019, we have experienced several waves of the disease led by different versions of the virus, the so-called variants, each with its own peculiarities and associated challenges. The latest one, SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.529, also called Omicron, was designated as a variant of concern by the WHO on 26th November 2021. First reported in South Africa, since then it has expanded throughout the globe and displaced Delta as the dominant variant globally. However, although Omicron is much more transmissible than earlier-emerging variants like Delta, preliminary studies indicate that Omicron has a decreased ability to infect lung tissue, which may be a reason why it appears to cause a milder infections than Delta.
Omicron accumulates more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, key for the initial steps of infection. That might explain why with Omicron there is a higher ability to evade immunity, which probably then leads to higher risk of reinfection than with previous variants (5.4-fold higher) and vaccines appear to have reduced effectiveness against infection and symptomatic disease, even while still protecting against severe disease.
However, despite its shortcomings, vaccination still appears to be the key to the management of the pandemic, particularly to protect at-risk populations and safeguard the maintenance of functioning health systems.
What kind of future awaits us with Covid-19?
It is hard to imagine a life without Covid-19. We are all uncertain whether masks will become an ever-present companion, whether a yearly vaccination will become the norm, and whether travelling without concerns is a thing of the past. It is unlikely that we will see the end of Covid-19 during 2022.
Nevertheless, entertaining various likely scenarios might help us prepare for the future. As we have learned from the first wave, a global response to a pandemic cannot be improvised, and already having a blueprint of possible paths gives a certain security that everything will eventually be alright.