As the world was coming to an end with all the COVID-19 precautions (removing mask requirements, restarting crowd activities such as concerts…), a new variant has raised concern. This new variant called the Omicron has been the center of attention for several weeks now, and many scientists are working collaboratively to gather data and virus samples to answer essential questions about the variant.
The first case of the Omicron variant was reported to World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24, 2021, from South Africa. Although the variant could have evolved elsewhere, we know that it first showed itself in South Africa and scientists came up with a theory that the emergence of the Omicron variant in South Africa is not a coincidence but instead is closely related to the high rates of HIV. According to Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV in the whole world. People living with HIV have been immunosuppressed and especially in South Africa where there is a lack of effective therapy, this allows for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to have suitable conditions to stick to and continue existing. But as said, this is still a theory and as is the case with any other disease or specifically any variant of SARS-CoV-2, there could always be various factors that trigger the formation of a new virus, or a variant of it.
After several studies, WHO designated the variant as a “Variant of Concern” due to its biological and chemical structure that is highly available for a large number of mutations. Especially, the capability of the virus to mutate its spike proteins led to some serious concerns regarding its transmissibility, immune system evasion, and vaccine resistance. According to recent studies, nearly 32 of the 60 mutations of the variant are affecting the spike protein, which is the main antigenic target of antibodies generated in the body and of many vaccines administered. These antibodies in our bodies and in the vaccines recognize the virus cells from their specific spike protein appearances, and since various mutations of the Omicron variant change the spike protein structure, scientists are concerned about the resilience of the variant. Some scientists even think that since the antibodies will not be effectively working, the immunity in people who were previously infected or were vaccinated could be reduced. Hence, getting booster shots of vaccines is essential. Although there are concerns about their effectiveness in fighting the Omicron variant, they are still the best option against it to prevent severe illnesses, hospitalization, and death.
The transmissibility of the virus is another point of concern for the world. Although no certain proof has yet been found that indicates any high levels of transmission of the virus compared to the other variants, the structure of the variant suggests that it has higher infectivity. Compared with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, the Omicron variant has various genomic changes due to changes in its amino acid (protein) structure. Nearly 30 amino acid changes, including deletion of various genomic regions and insertion of new ones, have been observed. One of the inserted amino acids that raised the highest concern amongst scientists was the H655Y amino acid. This amino acid is replaced with an original one that is close to the furin cleavage site. The virus requires cleavage of the spike proteins to mediate membrane fusion and the cleavage site of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can only be cleaved by a protein called furin. As a usual amino acid near the furin cleavage site is changed with a substitution, scientists expect increased spike cleavage and thus, increased transmissibility.
The symptoms of the Omicron variant are a little different than the original virus and more similar to the symptoms of flu. For example, one of the most generic and common symptoms of the original virus was the loss of taste and smell, while individuals with the Omicron variant have not reported any incidence. Instead, the most common symptoms are runny nose, sneezing, headache, and sore throat. So, especially nowadays in the winter season, it is hard to come to a conclusion based on a few symptoms such as fever or cough. If you are concerned that you might have the virus, immediately get tested in a local hospital. The widely used PCR tests are proven to detect the new Omicron variant, so they are still reliable sources for diagnosis.
Omicron has now been spread to over 80 countries including the United States, Turkey, Austria, and Belgium. Although the news is all focused on this new Omicron variant, Delta still is the main variant circulating in the whole world. Studies are still going on on the Omicron variant and scientists are trying to come to concrete conclusions about the transmissibility and severity of the variant, as well as the effectiveness of vaccines against the variant. WHO recommended countries to enhance their surveillance systems and make genomic sequences of the infected people available to the public to be able to gather data from all around the world. But we do know for sure that masks offer protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, no matter which variant of it is around. So, although there might be some flexibility in regulations of using masks, you should continue wearing one, especially in crowded and closed spaces, for both your and your communities health.
 Lang, Katharine. “The Birth of Omicron: Did HIV Play a Role?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 2021, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/did-hiv-help-omicron-evolve#HIV-and-SARS-CoV-2.
 “Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/omicron-variant.html.
 “Update on Omicron.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron.
 “SARS-COV-2 Omicron Variant.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Dec. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SARS-CoV-2_Omicron_variant.