Since the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus emerged in southern Africa in November, researchers have been racing to determine how dangerous it is and how effectively existing vaccines protect against it.
The World Health Organization has called Omicron a “variant of concern” and said it may be the most contagious variant that has appeared so far.
Al-Fanar Media talked to several Arab scientists about what researchers know about the virus so far and what they are still trying to find out.
Bacchus Tannous, a professor at Harvard University School of Public Health, said: “The problem is that this new variant contains a high mutation rate in the spike protein, which helps the virus attach to and invade human cells.”
How sick people get from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, can vary greatly from patient to patient. More research is needed, Tannous said, on whether the mutations in the Omicron variant make the disease more dangerous. “It may result in the injury of human cells more, or it may change in a way that does not lead to the injury of more cells,” he said.
Large Number of Mutations
Islam Hussein, a molecular virologist from Egypt who works for a biopharmaceutical company in the United States, agreed that the unusually large number of mutations in the Omicron variant were cause for concern.
“The problem is that this new variant contains a high mutation rate in the spike protein, which helps the virus attach to and invade human cells.”Bacchus Tannous
A professor at Harvard University School of Public Health
“It contains 50 mutations in the complete genome of the virus, and more than 30 mutations in the spike protein only,” he said. “This is a high percentage compared to the mutations that were present in the previous mutations, such as Delta and Beta.”
This raises the possibility that “the new variant could evade the body’s immunity resulting from vaccination or a previous infection,” said Hussein, who previously worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He added: “We are still in the first stage of analyzing the information extracted from the genetic structure of new mutations.” The second stage, to determine the degree of danger of the mutation, will consist in conducting laboratory experiments.
Asked about effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines against the new mutation, Hussein said: “The issue is not black and white, but it is subject to varying degrees of influence from other factors, which may make the effectiveness decrease, compared to the previous mutations.”
Other factors that affect vaccine effectiveness include “the presence in the body of antibodies, which work to prevent the virus from entering the body, and T cells, which recognize the location of the infected cells and destroy them. These two factors that work with the antibodies provided by vaccines to reduce the percentage” of infections.
Early statistics from South Africa on infections with the Omicron variant suggest the existing vaccines still protect against serious illness. The health minister, Joe Phaahla, said at a news conference that while the new variant had infected vaccinated people, it had led to just mild illness. Most patients who had to be admitted to hospitals were unvaccinated, he said.
“Our previous experiences with older variants indicate that the virus will not completely evade the vaccine or the immune system, no matter how the new variant evolves.”Ahmed Salman
A professor of immunology and vaccine development at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford
If new vaccines are needed, Hussein said, “the vaccines designed with mRNA technology will be the easiest and fastest to modify.” The vaccines designed with this technology are the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine.
Studying the Current Vaccines
For his part, Ahmed Salman, a professor of immunology and vaccine development at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “Our previous experiences with older variants indicate that the virus will not completely evade the vaccine or the immune system, no matter how the new variant evolves.”
“Conducting laboratory experiments is what will resolve the controversy over this variant and its degree of danger,” said Salman, who is a member of the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The laboratory tests, which may take from four to six weeks, will include analyzing the antibodies produced by people infected with the new mutation, or studying plasma from vaccine recipients to see if their antibodies are able to recognize and counteract the new variant.
Salman said: “If the vaccine is not able to prevent infection efficiently, it will still be able to very efficiently prevent patients from becoming critical cases.”
The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical companies have all announced that they are working on new, Omicron-specific versions of their vaccines, in case their current vaccines prove less effective.
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“There is still a lot of uncertainty” about the new variant, Albert Bourla, president of Pfizer Inc., said in an interview with CNBC in late November. Tests of Pfizer’s current vaccine against the new variant are underway to determine whether a new vaccine is needed, he said.
Previously, Pfizer created new versions of its vaccine to counter the Delta and Beta variants, but they were not used.