The variant with the designation B.1.1.529 or now Omikron is spreading around the world. The mutation is being detected in more and more countries. Experts are concerned about this development; in addition to a higher infectivity, they also suspect that vaccines are less effective in this variant. Dr. Richard Greil gave an insight into the current state of knowledge.
Can rapid development be expected?
The Omikron variant was first discovered on November 24th in South Africa. “The sample, however, comes from November 9th. Despite a quick analysis, three weeks in a globalized world are a lot of time to carry the virus into the world,” Greil explained in an interview with SALZBURG24 on Monday. The virus mutation has now been detected in several European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. According to Greil, it can be assumed that the variant WILL spread further.
Is the new variant milder in the course?
In South Africa there was a rapid increase in the incidence, which suggests a higher infectivity. Young people in particular were affected, which is also due to the predominantly younger population in South Africa. “Mild courses were recorded here. How the variant affects when it encounters an older population group is not yet known,” warns the Salzburg doctor.
Will Omikron replace the Delta variant?
“You have to look at that first,” Greil replies to this question. However, it is currently suspected that the vaccines are less effective with the new variant. “In Hong Kong people are suspected to have been vaccinated twice. However, nothing is known about their course or with which vaccine they were vaccinated,” said the infectiologist. The more than 30 mutations in the spike protein of the coronavirus would currently indicate a higher infection. “This can be represented using 3D computer models.”
How effective are vaccines against new variant?
The vaccine manufacturers are investigating this question. The first results are expected by the end of this week, Greil announced. Corresponding modeling would in any case already be carried out. The US manufacturer Moderna has already developed three other variants of vaccines to be able to react to mutations. The mRNA vaccines would in principle adapt better to an adaptation than, for example, vector vaccines, although the manufacturer Astra Zeneca is also working on an adaptation of its vaccine. A period of 100 days is calculated for adapting the vaccine, whereby BionTech could be a little faster.
What does Omikron mean for the vaccination campaign?
According to Greil, the new variant and adapted vaccines basically cause two problems:
- Studies and approval of the vaccine: For approval, ordinary tests on thousands of participants are necessary. “It will have to be decided whether this is possible in view of the rapid spread,” said Greil. It would be possible, however, to introduce vaccines more quickly, as is the case with the flu vaccination, for example.
- Logistical problems in handling the vaccination campaign: In Austria the vaccination campaign is slow, many people are not vaccinated or only partially vaccinated. The introduction of an adapted vaccine, which is required in addition to first, second and third vaccinations, would result in logistical problems.
What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?
Due to insufficient data, no reliable statements can yet be made in this regard.
Does the new variant weaken the coronavirus?
Will the coronavirus become more contagious with the new variant, but will it be milder? The infectiologist rejects this: “That might be possible with a globally suitable vaccination rate.” 42.7 percent of the global population are currently vaccinated. “As long as the rest of the population is not vaccinated, the possibility of new virus variants increases. Basically, more infectious forms prevail.”
Do travel restrictions make sense?
Even if the variant has already been proven several times in Europe, entry restrictions are still useful, says Greil: “Especially at the beginning of the pandemic it became clear that travel restrictions are one of the most effective means of curbing the number of infections, which is of great importance.” That is why it is important to continue to adhere to the mask requirement and to press ahead with the vaccination campaign.
Does a lockdown still make sense?
A lockdown can also curb the further spread of a virus variant. However, “it would be too early to talk about the duration. A lockdown can take less time, but it has to be more effective,” said the Salzburg doctor. Greil has no understanding that the schools in Austria are currently open: “I don’t think that’s understandable from a medical point of view. Especially as long as there is no corresponding vaccination rate in this age group.”
Greil: “Don’t panic”
As Greil continues, it is now important not to panic. “Science takes time, even if it works quickly.” The lockdown and other measures should continue to be observed, as this also helps against the further spread of the Omikron variant, the doctor concluded in a conversation with SALZBURG24.