As the Omicron COVID-19 strain spreads like wildfire worldwide, scientists are scrambling to study and understand the new variant. A team of researchers has found surprising evidence that may explain why Omicron is so different, comparatively mild, and spreading so fast.
Virologists have been caught by surprise by the unusually large number of mutations in Omicron. At first, it raised concerns that the current COVID vaccinations possibly won’t work. However, more data is coming out to undermine this fear. Over 95% of all positive cases in South Africa are Omicron, and 99% of those hospitalized are reported to be unvaccinated.
Since the country has one of the highest vaccination rates on the African continent, it implies the vaccines are working on the new variant, even with its many mutations. Furthermore, despite exponential growth, the number of hospitalizations did not increase in the second week of December, which can only be interpreted as excellent news.
The reported symptoms are cold-like: body aches and pains, muscle pains, headache, tiredness, sore throat, and mild cough. The unvaccinated report similar but slightly more intense symptoms.
A new study (Venkatakrishnan et al.) in pre-print as of December 11 may explain why Omicron is so mild. The researchers have identified a mutation ins214EPE that they believe is an insertion of a piece of the HCoV-229E, a common cold virus. In plain language, it caught a cold. All the other mutations have previously been observed in different COVID-19 strains, but ins214EPE is only found in Omicron.
The finding needs to be verified and substantiated but currently provides a plausible explanation for why the Omicron strain is so contagious and with markedly different and milder symptoms. It has been hijacked by one of the many highly successful cold viruses that circulate the globe. If so, that could be spectacularly good news because the common cold is a well-known risk that does not warrant lockdowns.
Although Omicron is not yet as prevalent in the rest of the world as it is in Africa, some reliable data is reported on transmission rates. There is currently a doubling of cases every three days in the U.K. Even with conservative assumptions, the doubling time is no more than five days. This means that when 0.1% of a population is infected with Omicron, it only takes about six weeks for the variant to become endemic.
For the United States, it means the pandemic could be over by the end of January 2022. For the world, it could end by March. Peak hospitalization rate occurs typically somewhere in the middle. However, the data currently indicates that the pressure on the health care system will not reach the levels of early 2020.
More research is needed before stringent conclusions can be drawn, but the data currently support the most optimistic interpretation. In 2022, COVID-19 could join the ranks of the common cold as yet another seasonal nuisance.
~ Read more from Caroline Adana.