The B.1.1.529 strain, is splashed all over the international headlines. It’s the hottest and most frightening thing at the moment.
But do you know also that the first four reported Omicron variant cases were all from patients who were “fully vaccinated”?
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The Omicron variant was first identified in Botswana earlier in November, but it is believed to be fueling a present spike in cases in South Africa. Also known as the B.1.1.529 variant, it has been found in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong so far.
“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,” Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said at a press briefing. “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.”
“We’re flying at warp speed,” Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, told Nature. Moore added that “at this stage it’s too early to tell anything” about the anecdotal reports of reinfections and of cases in vaccinated individuals.
“The Presidential Covid-19 Task Force informs the public that four (4) cases of a new Covid-19 variant now known as B.1.1.529, were reported and recorded on Monday 22nd November 2021,” Botswana’s task force coordinator Dr. K. Masupu said. “The four (4) cases were detected among travellers who tested SARS-COV-2 positive on routine pre-travel testing. The variant tests were carried out as part of the routine genomic surveillance of SARS-COV-2 as prescribed in our COVID-19 response plan.”
“The preliminary report revealed that all the four had been fully vaccinated for COVID-19,” the report continued. “As part of the continuing investigations into the virus to establish and contain its local transmissions, contact tracing has revealed close contacts who are currently awaiting their results and the public will be informed regarding the outcome of the exercise.”
“The initial investigations on the virus have established that the new variant has a high number of mutations as compared to the locally predominant Delta variant,” the task force added. “What this means is still unclear and under investigation. New variants have the potential to affect the severity of disease, how effective tests pick up the disease as well as potentially vaccine efficacy.”
The New York Times provided more background on the origins of the Omicron variant among human patients.
“Omicron first came to light in Botswana, where researchers at the Botswana Harvard H.I.V. Reference Laboratory in Gaborone sequenced the genes of coronaviruses from positive test samples,” the Times reported. “They found some samples sharing about 50 mutations not found in such a combination before. So far, six people have tested positive for Omicron in Botswana, according to an international database of variants.”
“Around the same time, researchers in South Africa stumbled across Omicron in a cluster of cases in the province of Gauteng,” the report continued. “As of Friday, they have listed 58 Omicron samples on the variant database. But at a news conference on Thursday, Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa, said that ‘close to two or three hundred’ genetic sequences of Omicron cases would be released in the next few days.”
“This variant did surprise us,” Dr. de Oliveira said at the news conference. “But the full significance is still uncertain.”