The Financial Express

The Omicron scare

| Updated: December 21, 2021 22:23:10

The Omicron scare

Europe is seeing the spectre of the new, Omicron variant of the coronavirus. After Alpha, Beta, Gamma and the Delta variants, now it is the Omicron. Preparations are afoot to ward off this fifth new wave of the pandemic. The Netherlands has gone for the strictest preventive measure against Omicron by declaring closure of schools, restaurants, bars, non-essential shops and public places from Sunday until at least mid-January. Before that there were curfews for weeks on hospitality and cultural centres. And the scene is not much different elsewhere in Europe and North America. Before the fourth week of November, health experts, governments and the business circles were getting more optimistic about returning to a situation that is more or less normal in 2022. But the outlook has changed globally since November 24 when the new variant, Omicron, declared its presence with the report from the South African scientists about its existence. Their tests showed that this new variant has high transmissibility, but not so life-threatening as its predecessor Delta had been. However, thus far, Omicron is still not fully understood. Whatever could be learnt about it is what the South African researchers have found. Going by their findings, the knee-jerk reaction to this variant across the globe, especially, in Europe, seems to some virologists uncalled-for.

Benjamin tenOever, a virologist at the NYU Langone Health, a premier academic medical centre in New York, USA, for example, says, "The truth is that I'm not overly concerned about Omicron at all. All the cases have been very mild and I don't actually understand where the hysteria is coming from". He also added that "The proteases (protease is an enzyme that breaks down proteins and peptides) and the replication machinery of Omicron have not changed compared to Beta or Delta; so it is also clear that drugs like those of Pfizer and Merck are still going to be equally effective against Omicron". In fact, South African researchers have lately found that vaccinated people with antibodies seem to have the ability to neutralise the new variant. True, Omicron has been fast improving its ability to bind to a protein called ACE2 (Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2) receptor. The coronavirus attaches to this particular protein (receptor) of the human cell to infect a wide range of cells. Children have fewer ACE2 receptors than adults. But with Omicron's fast increasing ability to bind with ACE2, it is getting more efficient at infecting people with fewer ACE2, such as children. Such characteristic of Omicron is definitely a cause for concern. But it has a silver lining. It is that Omicron has not come from Delta, a rather deadly variant of the Covid-19. Scientists believe, Omicron emerged directly from the first wave of the Covid-19 (the Alpha variant) that was circulating the globe in mid-2020. Maybe it happened in some locality to an immunocompromised human host. It helped the virus's spike protein to undergo some 35 mutations. And now it has chosen to break free from that host and have meanwhile spread to 89 countries. Such possibility has the implication that the Alpha variant that underwent so many mutations in its spike protein might have become endemic in the locality where it developed. And if it is possible for this variant (Omicron) to be endemic in a particular place, it can also be so elsewhere. In fact, such potential of this variant, if it has so happened, is no doubt concerning.

However, researches have been done at the Rockefeller University using pseudovirus that can beat all the antibodies created in the human body by mRNA vaccine. The result is interesting as human body could develop an impressive array of antibodies to neutralise the heavily mutated spike proteins of the virus. That means, natural infections as well as vaccination help humans to effectively fight off these highly mutated spike proteins. Also, consider the T-cells, an important part of the immune system, that attacks and kills foreign antigen in human body. The researches done so far on the Omicron variant should give us reason to relax, not to be hysterical.

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