A new COVID-19 variant has global authorities worried once again. And to hear some scientists tell it, the Delta variant could prove to be child’s play next to this latest variant that was first discovered in South Africa and has led countries to tighten their borders. However, much remains unknown about the variant—including just how dangerous it will end up being. On Friday, the World Health Organization designated it as a “variant of concern” and dubbed it “Omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet. Stock markets around the world plunged amid fears that the new variant could both be more easily transmissible and resistant to existing vaccines. For now though there are way more questions than answers about B.1.1.529.
Why is everyone so concerned?
In one word: mutations. The new variant has more than 30 mutations of the spike protein, which is what viruses use to get into human cells. That is a really high number, amounting to double the number of mutations that Delta has, for example, and means this virus is significantly different from the one that first emerged in China. Omicron is “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen,” Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said. The variant is the “most worrying we’ve seen,” said Dr. Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the U.K. Health and Security Agency. Hopkins said the sheer number of mutations raise a lot of questions about the variant: “There’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility.”
Is Omicron more transmissible than Delta?
Experts say the mutations suggest the variant can transmit much more easily but no one can say for certain yet. Although there are worrying signs, it isn’t clear whether Omicron spreads faster than Delta nor whether it leads to more severe disease. But there are signs that have worried experts. South Africa has experienced a surge of cases in recent weeks, a vast majority of them from Gauteng province. No one can say for certain yet whether that’s due to Omicron, experts suspect that may be the case. As with other variants, some people who contract the Omicron strain are asymptomatic.
Will vaccines still work?
Again, no one really knows for sure yet. Experts say it seems unlikely that the vaccines wouldn’t be effective and they caution against being too alarmist too early. Vaccines have largely held up against the previous variants, but none had as many mutations as Omicron.
When was it first detected?
The variant was first identified on Tuesday and linked to an increase in cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province over the past two weeks. It isn’t certain, though that’s where it originated; the earliest sample that contains the variant was collected on Nov. 11 in Botswana. Cases have also been detected in Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium.
How many other variants of concern are there?
Besides Omicron, the World Health Organization has identified four other variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. The U.N. agency gives that label to variants that may be more contagious, more virulent, and/or are less vulnerable to vaccines. It has also labeled two variants as ones of interest: Lambda and Mu.
*This post has been updated since it was first published.