The Omicron Variant Has Worrisome Mutations But Scientists Say Vaccines Seem Likely To Work Against It
Scientific experts at the World Health Organization warned on Friday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa was a variant of concern, the most serious category the agency uses for such tracking.
The designation, announced after an emergency meeting of the health body, is reserved for dangerous variants that may spread quickly, cause severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments. The last coronavirus variant to receive this label was Delta, which took off this summer and now accounts for virtually all Covid cases in the United States.
The W.H.O. said the new version, named Omicron, carries a number of genetic mutations that may allow it to spread quickly, perhaps even among the vaccinated.
Independent scientists agreed that Omicron warranted urgent attention, but also pointed out that it would take more research to determine the extent of the threat. Although some variants of concern, like Delta, have lived up to initial worries, others have had a limited impact.
William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and other researchers said that vaccines will most likely protect against Omicron, but further studies are needed to determine how much of the shots effectiveness may be reduced.
Breakthrough Infections Are Usually Asymptomatic
A breakthrough infection is a term used to describe an infection that occurs in a person who has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to the CDC, a small percentage of fully vaccinated individuals will experience a breakthrough infection. While the COVID vaccines are highly effective, no vaccine is 100% effective at delivering immunity.
Breakthrough infections are generally asymptomatic or symptoms are mild, Dr. Sanchez said. These cases are inevitable when people are living in communities with high rates of transmission and where a large proportion of people are not immune, either through vaccination or recent recovery from infection.”
Breakthrough infections are usually detected when screenings take place for travel, sports or employment purposes. Most people who experience a breakthrough infection report mild or no symptoms. Cases of severe disease, hospitalization and death in fully vaccinated individuals are extremely rare, and the risk is dramatically lower than in those who have not been fully vaccinated.
The Delta Variant May Impact Whether Schools Require Masks This Fall
Connecticuts and New Englands COVID-19 numbers are currently lower than many other parts of the United States. However, now that the Delta variant has arrived in our part of the country, community infection rates are increasing.
As leaders decide how schools should resume classes in a few weeks, they will keep a close eye on these community infection rates to determine whether classroom safety measures like masking and social distancing should continue.
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Why Are People Worried About The Delta Variant
Delta, formally known as B.1.617.2, is believed to be the most transmissible variant yet, spreading more easily than both the original version of the virus and the Alpha variant first identified in Britain. It is believed to be roughly twice as contagious as the original virus.
People who are infected by Delta may carry 1,000 times more virus, and for a longer period of time, than those infected by the original virus.
Other evidence suggests that the variant may be able to partially evade the antibodies made by the immune system after a coronavirus infection or vaccination. And the variant may also render certain monoclonal antibody treatments less effective, the C.D.C. notes.
Delta is also likely more severe, the agency said in its internal document.
A recent Scottish study, for instance, found that people infected by the Delta variant were roughly twice as likely to be hospitalized as those infected with Alpha. Studies in Canada and Singapore have turned up similar findings.
What Are Delta Variant Symptoms
The symptoms of the Delta variant appear to be the same as the original version of COVID-19. However, physicians are seeing people getting sicker quicker, especially for younger people. Recent research found that the Delta variant grows more rapidly and to much greater levels in the respiratory tract.
Typically, vaccinated people are either asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms if they contract the Delta variant. Their symptoms are more like those of a common cold, such as cough, fever or headache, with the addition of significant loss of smell.
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Delta Could Lead To ‘hyperlocal Outbreaks’
If Delta continues to move fast enough to accelerate the pandemic, Dr. Wilson says the biggest questions will be about the heightened transmissibilityhow many people will get the Delta variant and how fast will it spread?
The answers could depend, in part, on where you liveand how many people in your location are vaccinated, he says. I call it patchwork vaccination, where you have these pockets that are highly vaccinated that are adjacent to places that have 20% vaccination, Dr. Wilson says. The problem is that this allows the virus to hop, skip, and jump from one poorly vaccinated area to another.
In some cases, a low-vaccination town that is surrounded by high vaccination areas could end up with the virus contained within its borders, and the result could be hyperlocal outbreaks, he says. Then, the pandemic could look different than what weve seen before, where there are real hotspots around the country.
Some experts say the U.S. is in a good position because of its relatively high vaccination ratesor that conquering Delta will take a race between vaccination rates and the variant. But if Delta keeps moving fast, multiplying infections in the U.S. could steepen an upward COVID-19 curve, Dr. Wilson says.
Does Omicron Produce More Severe Illness
There have been reports that those infected in South Africa have had mild illnesses. But that may be the result of the initial group being mostly young people, who have mild illness anyway. So, I would say we just dont know, Collins told CNN.
The initial reported infections have occurred among university students.
The World Health Organization said that preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.
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If Im Vaccinated Do I Need To Worry About Getting Sick
Although there is not yet good data on how all of the vaccines hold up against Delta, two doses of several widely used shots, including those made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca, appear to retain most of their effectiveness against the Delta variant, research suggests.
Delta may cause more frequent breakthrough infections, or infections in people who have been fully vaccinated, than other variants. However, these infections tend to be mild or asymptomatic. The vaccines prevent more than 90 percent of severe disease, the C.D.C. document notes.
Being fully vaccinated gives you a high degree of protection against infection, and an even higher degree of protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death, Dr. Walensky said at last weeks briefing. That is what these vaccines were designed for.
According to one recent study, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88 percent effective at protecting against symptomatic disease caused by Delta, nearly matching its 93 percent effectiveness against the Alpha variant and 95 percent against the original version of the virus. But a single dose of the vaccine was just 33 percent effective against Delta, the study found.
Data on Johnson & Johnsons single-shot vaccine have been more limited and mixed. Earlier this month, the company reported the results of a small study indicating that its vaccine retained most of its effectiveness against Delta.
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What Defines The Delta Variant
The exact functions of the delta mutations have not yet been scientifically researched. So far, however, it is known that they allow the virus to bind more easily to human cells and avoid some immune reactions, said Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at the Queen Mary University of London, in an interview with DW. The delta variant itself has several mutations.
The delta variant spreads faster when people meet in huge gatherings, like Euro 2020 matches
Peggy Riese, a scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, says it has also been found that the delta mutation leads to a higher viral load, for example, in the throat. This is also confirmed by other scientists interviewed by DW.
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There Is Still More To Learn About Delta
One important question is whether the Delta strain will make you sicker than the original virus. But many scientists say they dont know yet. Early information about the severity of Delta included a study from Scotland that showed the Delta variant was about twice as likely as Alpha to result in hospitalization in unvaccinated individuals, but other data has shown no significant difference.
Another question focuses on how Delta affects the body. There have been reports of symptoms that are different than those associated with the original coronavirus strain, Dr. Yildirim says. It seems like cough and loss of smell are less common. And headache, sore throat, runny nose, and fever are present based on the most recent surveys in the U.K., where more than 90% of the cases are due to the Delta strain, she says.
Experts are starting to learn more about Delta and breakthrough cases. A Public Health England analysis showed at least two vaccines to be effective against Delta. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic disease and 96% effective against hospitalization from Delta in the studies, while Oxford-AstraZeneca was 60% effective against symptomatic disease and 93% effective against hospitalization. The studies tracked participants who were fully vaccinated with both recommended doses.
Moderna also reported on studies that showed its vaccine to be effective against Delta and several other mutations .
Cdc Strengthens Its Guidance On Booster Shots
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its guidance on COVID vaccine booster shots on Monday, advising that Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are 6 months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or 2 months after their initial J& J vaccine after previously only recommending that adults 18 to 49 could get a booster if they wanted to. CDC director Rochelle Walensky mentioned the Omicron variant in the announcement. The recent emergence of the Omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19, she said.
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Is Omicron More Transmissible Than Other Variants
Fauci said Sunday on ABCs This Week that Omicron is probably more transmissible than other variants.
Its mutations would strongly suggest that it would be more transmissible, Fauci said. Troublingly, it might evade some of the protection of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment for COVID-19 that can counteract the coronavirus before it can begin destroying the bodys organs.
If you look at the pattern of whats going on right now in southern Africa particularly in South Africa when you have a spike of infections, they are very heavily weighted toward this new variant, the Omicron, Fauci said. And, therefore, you have to presume that it has a good degree of transmissibility advantage.
In another interview Sunday on NBCs Meet the Press, Fauci said Omicrons sudden appearance in South Africa was accompanied by a big spike in cases, following a time of low infection levels.
And when the South Africans looked at it, they said, Oh, my goodness. This is a different virus than weve been dealing with. So it clearly is giving indication that it has the capability of transmitting rapidly, Fauci said. Thats the thing thats causing us now to be concerned, but also to put the pressure on ourselves now to do something about our preparation for this.
Its not clear whether Omicron will overtake Delta as being the most transmissible variant of the coronavirus.
Fire At Australian Quarantine Hotel Prompts Evacuations
A 31-year-old woman was charged with arson after the police said she started a fire under a bed in her room at a quarantine hotel in Queensland. The hotels 163 occupants were evacuated safely.
The fire started on the 11th floor of the premises, and it was quite intense. That is obviously the hotel quarantine facility for Cairns. Theres been no injuries from any of the persons that were at the Pacific Hotel. The hotel is currently a crime scene. Weve put our top investigators looking at the matter. The 31-year-old female had been in quarantine for a couple of days, and we did have some issues with that female occupant that we were managing. And its an unfortunate incident that has occurred this morning. And look, I really feel for the hotel chain. They have supported us and the whole of government response since the start in March last year, and for this to happen is a bit of a tragedy.
A woman sent a quarantine hotel in Queensland, Australia, up in flames by lighting a fire under a bed in her room, according to police, triggering the evacuation of the buildings 163 occupants.
Police charged the 31-year-old woman, who was quarantining in the Pacific Hotel in the city of Cairns with her two children, with arson on Sunday.
The fire was started at about 7 a.m. on Sunday in the womans room on the top floor of the hotel in far north Queensland, police said. It then spread to neighboring rooms.
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The Effects Of Virus Variants On Covid
This article is part of a series of explainers on vaccine development and distribution. Learn more about vaccines from how they work and how theyre made to ensuring safety and equitable access in WHOs Vaccines Explained series.
All viruses including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 evolve over time. When a virus replicates or makes copies of itself, it sometimes changes a little bit, which is normal for a virus. These changes are called mutations. A virus with one or more new mutations is referred to as a variant of the original virus.
Vaccination Is The Best Protection Against Delta
The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from Delta is to get fully vaccinated, the doctors say. At this point, that means if you get a two-dose vaccine like Pfizer or Moderna, for example, you must get both shots and then wait the recommended two-week period for those shots to take full effect. Whether or not you are vaccinated, its also important to follow CDC prevention guidelines that are available for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Like everything in life, this is an ongoing risk assessment, says Dr. Yildirim. If it is sunny and youll be outdoors, you put on sunscreen. If you are in a crowded gathering, potentially with unvaccinated people, you put your mask on and keep social distancing. If you are unvaccinated and eligible for the vaccine, the best thing you can do is to get vaccinated.
Face masks can provide additional protection and the WHO has encouraged mask-wearing even among vaccinated people. The CDC updated its guidance in July to recommend that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of high transmission to help prevent Deltas spread and to protect others, especially those who are immuno-compromised, unvaccinated, or at risk for severe disease. The agency is also recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools.
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What Do We Need To Do Now
Variants with increased transmissibility and the potential to escape antibodies pose a threat to efforts to control and mitigate the pandemic. And countries with low vaccination rates may see new outbreaks.
How should our response change? Despite the mutations, no extra special measures need to be taken. We must continue to get maximum numbers of people vaccinated, increase genomic surveillance to track the evolution of the virus, and follow COVID-appropriate behaviour.
Variants Are Wild Cards
We will probably all need a booster. The question is of what and, of course, when? And are there certain people who may need them first? said Dr. Fryhofer, adding that we’re still trying to determine the correlates of protection.
Variants are wildcards. Vaccine researchers understand this, and that’s why Moderna’s already working on a B.1.351 specific booster, she said. A new study says Pfizer’s 90% effective against B.1.1.7 but only 75% effective against B.1.351.
As long as people keep getting infected, new variants will appear. It’s like the children’s game telephoneevery time the message is repeated, it changes, Dr. Fryhofer added. I worry about patients, for example, those with severe B-cell defects and those on immunosuppressants that don’t develop a good immune response after vaccination.
I also worry about variants gone wild. When those unprotected people get COVID, especially if they have long sustained viremia, that’s why everyone needs to be vaccinatedto protect them and those around them, she explained. With this new contagious Delta variant on the scene, it may not be a matter of the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated but instead those vaccinated and those infected.
And some of those infected may be asymptomatic but could still spread the virus to more vulnerable people, Dr. Fryhofer added.
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