Saturday, 22 January, 2022

Omicron Not Yet Fully Known

Chinmay Prasun Biswas

Omicron Not Yet Fully Known
Chinmay Prasun Biswas

As infection of corona has been declining during the last few months, it appears that we have reached the end of this epidemic and we shall return to normal life. Black days will be erased from our memory but a new replica or variant has suddenly raised head causing panic all over the world. Despite vaccination the fear of closing educational institutions, office, travelling has reappeared but nobody knows where the end lies.

The National Institutes of Health, Washington DC informs that the main function of a virus is to find guests in its own interest of multiplication because its existence becomes meaningless unless it enters living body. When the virus reproduces in that body mutation occurs every time but it is impossible to predict exactly when a mutation will occur. Most mutations are random or useless but some mutations make the virus stronger through increasing the number or rate of infections or making the infection more severe. For instance, the Delta variant turned horrible in India. But a living body is needed for the virus to reproduce. In this process of mutation the virus initially becomes terrible but subsequently becomes blunt. When Spanish flu first appeared in 1918 around 500 million died worldwide but now it is a seasonal virus. Although many people die of it every year, its mutations do not contain epidemic because vaccines have gradually developed hard immunity among people. So, scientists speculate that Covie-19 virus may become a seasonal virus in next few years.

Question arises about Omicron variant – is it more dangerous than Delta? Will vaccine work against it? Let's analyse how much we know about it. Omicron first appeared in South Africa on 24th November, last year. Though detected first in the United States in last December 75% of new Covid-19 patients was infected by Omicron. It shows that the transmission of Omicron is much faster than that of other variants but rate of death is lower than that of the Delta variant. In the United States, for example, one person has died of Omicron. India is also infected; it is apprehended that the number of deaths will increase in near future and economy may be hit severely. We do not yet know the details of Omicron but it is expected that more information will be available soon.

As per version of The National Institutes of Health, Washington DC vaccine is needed to prevent any infectious virus. Unless resisted it continuously changes as Covid-19 virus has evolved from Alpha to Delta and now to Omicron. Initiative to develop vaccine began early in 2021 when no Delta or Omicron variants were known. But any variant changes in such a way that the old vaccine does not work against it properly. It is apprehended that present vaccines may not be fully effective against Omicron. As immunity usually decreases a booster dose is required to increase it.

Vaccination began early last year. Scientists and public health experts predicted from the outset that a booster dose would probably be required a decade later but the required time has already appeared. So, it is not yet clear whether the vaccine will work properly against Omicron because immunity of the vaccine has decreased. It is apprehended that the current vaccine may not prevent Omicron and whether booster dose will work at all.

Preliminary studies suggest that booster doses may be effective against Omicron although extensive clinical trials have not yet been completed. It is estimated that booster doses may be effective in preventing serious illness, even if they do not provide 90-95% resistance. May be in the future not just the third but fourth or every year booster dose should be taken. However, it is undeniable that vaccine is still the best tool to fight against Omicron. Frustratingly, even in developed countries (viz. the US) the initial vaccination rate is 63% and booster dose rate is only 19%. In India that rate is 80%, booster doses have not yet started. Vaccination of booster dose has already begun in Bangladesh. As Omicron has been detected in Bangladesh, government has issued 15 precautionary directives to prevent it. In South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, the initial vaccination rate was only 45%. 70-75% of people need to be vaccinated to develop strong immunity. If the rate of vaccination is not increased in the whole world, another variant will inevitably develop and soon it will spread all over the world.

There are many theories and opinions about the origin of Omicron. For example, it might have entered human body through an animal or Omicron was roaming in a small place in South Africa but was not detected. Analysis of Omicron's genome shows that this variant may have existed since mid-2020 but remained unpublicised. Omicron probably existed in an 'immune compromised' (such as HIV-infected) human body for a long time. It has gradually changed and spread to other people at just the right time and opportunity. More surprisingly - Omicron has incorporated a fragment of the common seasonal coronavirus into its genome. As a result, just as the seasonal virus appears regularly in homes, so does Omicron spread around the world. The wave of Omicron is spreading like a wildfire. In the same way, it is going to decrease in a few weeks. From this trend scientists have speculated that Covid-19 virus may be similar to other seasonal coronaviruses.

It is beyond doubt that the epidemic is not yet over. However, there is a ray of hope that like other common cold viruses, the Covid-19 virus will return every year but will not go to pandemic stage. More hopeful news is that in addition to vaccines oral preventives have also been developed. In near future we shall be able to breathe a sigh of relief.


The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes