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Wary of new variant Omicron


@zinabalnasseri -

The World Health Organization named the new coronavirus mutant as ‘Omicron’, describing it as ‘alarming’ due to the high number of mutations it has undergone and also because of its higher infection rate compared to the previous mutants.

The Omicron mutant has caused a wave of panic around the world, causing economic losses in global stock exchange and pushed oil prices down, while countries took measures restricting travel to and from South Africa, where it was first discovered.

As for the Sultanate of Oman, it suspended entry to travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini starting from November 28 due to the spread of the new variant. Arrivals from any other country, if the travellers happened to have visited the above mentioned countries within 14 days before applying to enter the Sultanate of Oman, have also been suspended.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE already announced that they had detected the first case of Omicron in persons coming from Africa.

Dr Zaid al Hinai, a Consultant on Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, commented that the emergence of Omicron is not entirely surprising. “It will take weeks to know how dangerous it is,” he said, adding that “this mutation reminds us of the importance of continuing caution and precaution, as well as the importance of continuing (and possibly tightening) the examination of those returning after travel to prevent the spread of the virus through the borders.”

The doctor stressed that early intervention is needed to check the entry of this new strain or others through the border crossings.

Dr Al Hinai said, “The mutant spreads rapidly in a Delta-dominant country; that is, it may be more widespread than the Delta strain. It is the first mutant to succeed this. Plus, it contains a large number of genetic mutations in the spike protein: that is, it may evade immunity more.”

He said precautions need to be taken to avoid transmitting any infection. “Do Covid test when suspected, avoid gatherings, wear mask, ensure hand hygiene, and isolate the person if any symptoms appear.”

“The fear is that mutated strains will enter through other countries. For example, the infection that was detected in Belgium was for a traveller coming from Egypt. We need to reintroduce the examination upon arrival, with reduced test charges of RO 5-10,” he suggested.

For this reason, scientists are racing against time to unravel the Omicron mystery and ward off the threat, besides finding out the efficacy of vaccines against the variant. The World Health Organization said on Sunday that “understanding the level of severity of Omicron variable will take days to several weeks.”

It also mentioned that “preliminary evidence indicates the possibility of a greater risk of re-infection with Omicron mutant for corona disease, but “it is not yet clear if the mutant is more likely to spread infection, or whether it causes more severe disease.”

It added that “preliminary data indicate that there are increasing rates of hospital admissions in South Africa, but this may be due to an increase in the overall numbers of infected people and not as a result of mutations. There is currently no information to indicate that symptoms associated with Omicron differ from symptoms that appear due to other variables.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said on Friday that based on the available data about the new mutant, it “may have the ability to circumvent immunity, and the speed of its spread may exceed which we witnessed with the Delta mutant.”

However, Network for Genomic Surveillance South Africa (NGS-SA) announced earlier that new mutant’s spike protein switch tested a large number of mutations, more than 30, which is the structure the virus uses to get into the cell it attacks.

Scientists are concerned that these mutations may contribute to making Omicron highly transmissible and immune. However, they found that these differences do not necessarily mean that Omicron is more dangerous than Delta, suggesting that the matter is that the virus has adapted more to humans, by generating a new mutant. They stressed that the studies currently underway will confirm if the adaptation that occurred to the virus is normal, or less or more serious.

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