Omicron, the new variant of concern

By Mabel Soriano, 11th Grade

Over the past two years, every one of us has been affected directly or indirectly by the Sars-Cov-2 virus, commonly known as the coronavirus epidemic. Due to vaccination, cases have considerably decreased globally. Consequently, many countries have resumed a lifestyle that resembles life before the outbreak. However, recent discoveries about a new variant have caused apprehensiveness. 

In Botswana and South Africa, scientists found the Omicron variant in a specimen collected on November 9th. Straightaway, the World Health Organization (WHO) began naming the variants after Greek letters to avoid public confusion and stigma. For example, the previously discovered variants are alpha, beta, and delta. 

Interestingly, WHO has skipped two Greek letters—Nu and Xi—and landed with Omicron. A WHO spokesman, Tarik Jasaric, said that: Nu is too easily confused with new, and Xi is a common last name. Because of this, neither of them employ to name the new variant. For those who were wondering. 

According to the New York Times, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called Omicron a variant of concern. Moreover, throughout an interview with our beloved biology and environmental sciences teacher, Eloisa Sardinha—a biologist herself— we discussed the structure of this new variant and scientific reasoning behind the anxiety engendered by the population. 

First things first, to understand Omicron, we need to be aware of the biology of the original virus. A virus is an infectious agent of small size and simple composition that can multiply only in living organisms. An organism refers to a living thing that possesses an organized structure and can reproduce, grow, adapt, and maintain homeostasis. Viruses have genetic material—DNA or RNA—but do not have the tools to replicate their genetic material sexually or asexually. They depend on the host to make copies of themselves. Since viruses don’t fully apply to the textbook definition, scientists argue that viruses aren’t living organisms like us or bacteria. 

Throughout history, there has been a variety of viruses. The Sars-Cov-2 virus is a coronavirus, referred to this way due to its physical characteristics similar to a crown. 

Transmission occurs mainly through saliva. Unconsciously, when we talk, sneeze, yell, and laugh, tiny particles or droplets of saliva will spill out of our mouths and can land on any mucus surfaces: eyes, nose, and mouth. A person can be infected when aerosols containing the virus are inhaled or come directly into contact with these parts of our faces. Hence, as a security measure, we are required to wear masks. Besides, preferably not touch our eyes without sanitizing our hands first. 

Now, what happens when the virus has entered our body? Ms. Eloisa explains that “With Sars-Cov-19, just like any virus, it needs to infect other cells because the virus lacks the mechanisms to make more copies of itself independently. To locate the cell they need, they have proteins in what we call the capsule. The capsule is this type of shell that contains all the viral genetic material. In this case, the viral RNA. The viral RNA inside of the capsule contains specific proteins that will eventually match with the proteins within a healthy cell. Once those two proteins pair, the virus will trick the cell into accepting the RNA. The virus will have the necessary mechanisms to make indefinite RNA copies and assemble new viruses. After a while, the cell reaches a breaking point when it releases the large number of viral copies leading for the virus to infect nearby healthy cells.”

An interesting fact is that, in retrospect, this virus takes longer to infect a large number of cells. Thus there are approximately seven days after contact before we develop—if we do—symptoms of the disease. “The viral RNA needs to make the viral DNA. The healthy cell copies the viral DNA, and then DNA needs to be transcribed into viral RNA. We can say that it takes a little bit longer than if the virus contained DNA.” This information influences whether your results in the PCR test are positive or negative. The PCR test detects the virus in your body solely when it reaches a certain amount. Since the Covid-19 virus takes longer to replicate, there is a higher chance of the PCR test being a false negative because there could be viral copies in your body but not enough to be detected. 

After that explanation, we possess a broad understanding of the Sars-Cov-2 general biology. Nonetheless, we can ask ourselves the following questions: one, how does a variant occur, and two, what makes Omicron different? 

For a virus to become a variant, the infected population must survive long enough for the virus to be passed on and mutate. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the variant is less deadly but rather that the population has a fitter immune system. In the case of Covid-19, individuals with comorbidities such as diabetes, cancer, lung deficiencies, and transplant patients are at a higher risk of dying from the virus because their immune systems are compromised. 

As explained by Ms. Eloisa, the Omicron variant accumulated way more mutations than delta—which is the most common variant at the moment. Although recent, scientists have concluded that the variations that have occurred are alarming. Several of the changes happened to the proteins inside the capsule. Scientists explain their concern because they are unsure if the vaccines provided will be effective against the new variant. 

Let’s remember that current vaccines work by injecting the viral proteins. Our body then gets used to recognizing these proteins and destroying them when encountered.​​ So, after being inoculated, we can have mild symptoms such as fever and fatigue because our body responds to those small proteins of the virus. If the proteins are severely different, then exists doubt of whether current vaccines will be effective against Omicron. Hence, speculation. Moreover, “researchers have also found that previously infected individuals can be infected with this new variant because the body doesn’t have defenses against Omicron.” 

In brief, there are many aspects of the new variant that until now are unknown. For example, scientists are unsure whether the rate of lethality would be higher. However, it appears that Omicron has a higher rate of transmission. Nonetheless, it’s indisputable to stay calm and be critical of the information we decide to believe. When there is panic, many rumors and false information resurface. Therefore, it’s crucial to choose reliable sources and not take leaps of judgment. Currently, Omicron remains an enigma, but sadly all we can do is have patience and wish for the best.

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