Position Statement No. 25: Omicron – a new variant of SARS-CoV-2

According to recent reports, a new and potentially dangerous variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus named Omicron (variant B.1.1.529) has been discovered. The European Commission is considering banning flights to the countries where this variant has appeared. Some countries, including the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States, have already taken such measures. The United States has placed restrictions on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, and Eswatini. Is there reason to be concerned?

The novel variant was first detected in five samples from Botswana collected on 11 November. The full sequence of the samples has been made available in recent days. The analysis of the sequence has shown that this virus is characterized by a high number of mutations that may cause concern. Earlier variants usually had single changes of this type, and even so, they have been associated with increased human-to-human transmissibility and immune evasion. There is, as yet, no data on how much these changes will affect the characteristics of the variant: its transmissibility as well as its ability to evade the immune system and to cause severe disease. Although we know the genome sequence of the virus, we have not isolated the full virus yet, which would allow us to gain the first insight into its exact characteristics.

Certain types of immunodeficiency may be conducive to the replication of SARS-CoV-2 over the long term, even for many months. By replicating for a long time, the virus learns how the human immune system works and gradually creates variants that evade it. We can only assume that this situation may have contributed to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

The worrying thing about Omicron (the B.1.1.529 variant) is that it became the majority variant in South Africa in just a few days, replacing the earlier variant, labeled as Delta. This may indicate increased transmissibility. However, few cases are now being reported in the region, so even a single outbreak caused by a specific variant may significantly distort the proportion of individual variants in the population. Such variants have also emerged in the past. Despite initial concerns, however, they did not trigger pandemic waves, nor did they pose a real global threat (this applies, for example, to the variants named Gamma and Lambda).

We are currently unable to estimate the actual extent of the threat, so there is an ongoing debate on adequate reactions. The European Commission is considering imposing restrictions on air traffic with countries that are starting to be dominated by this variant. Such an early response could delay a potential wave of infections and therefore give us more time to perform analyses and even to develop a new version of the vaccine. The country currently facing the largest outbreak of Omicron infections is South Africa, but there are also reports coming in from other regions of the world. 

We expect the coming days to bring the first reports of the clinical presentation of the infections and the amount of virus in the respiratory tract of patients. There will be simultaneous reports of the spread of the virus in various countries. In the next stage, the scientists will examine if the immune response in the patients who have been vaccinated or who have recovered from the disease provides protection against the new threat. They will also examine how changes in the viral RNA translate into the virus’s ability to infect, the rate of its multiplication, and its ability to produce progeny viruses.

Comparing these clinical data with laboratory data will allow us to assess the risk more accurately, but we should already prepare for the threat so that we can swiftly take decisive steps if this proves necessary.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been concerned about the emergence of a SARS-CoV-2 variant that could very easily transmit between humans and evade the immunity acquired by those who have recovered from the disease or received vaccines. In the past, scientists signaled such a threat on several occasions. Perhaps our concerns are premature also this time. However, it is certain that by allowing the virus to spread freely, we increase the risk of the emergence of such a variant. What can we do right now? Every person who has not been vaccinated yet should seriously consider receiving a vaccine. Those who have already received vaccines should seriously consider taking their third doses if this is possible. Universal vaccination significantly reduces the risk of the emergence of new variants. Those returning from another country should get tested for the virus. We should maintain social distance, wear masks, and ventilate indoor spaces. All these measures protect us from all variants of SARS-CoV-2, even the most dangerous ones, and more.

About the team

The Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences was set up on 30 June 2020. The team is chaired by Prof. Jerzy Duszyński, President of the PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) as deputy chair and Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences) as its secretary. Other members of the team are:

• Dr. Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw)
• Prof. Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University)
• Prof. Radosław Owczuk, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)
• Dr. Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry)
• Dr. Wojciech Paczos (PAS Institute of Economics, Cardiff University)
• Dr. Magdalena Rosińska, MD (National Institute for Public Health – National Hygiene Institute, Warsaw)
• Prof. Andrzej Rychard (PAS Institute of Philosophy and Sociology),
• Dr. Tomasz Smiatacz, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)