What Omicron variant holds for us?
It is highly transmissible and evasive
The COVID-19 pandemic, in its original form, was quick; WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, and by April 2020, 167 countries had implemented travel restrictions. But when one compares previous variants with Omicron, the previous variants appear slowpokes.
The earlier variants were slow
If alpha or delta variants were Airbus A 320, omicron is a fighter jet. Researchers and scientists are still studying omicron, but the initial study has allowed scientists to get a glimpse of the variant.
Shorter incubation period
Omicron has a shorter incubation period. The incubation period is the period between a person’s first exposure to the virus and the person exhibiting symptoms. With the Alpha variant, the incubation period was 5 days; With the delta variant, it was 4 days; and With the omicron variant, it may be down to 3 days.
The shorter incubation period points to an infected person becoming contagious faster which translates into outbreaks spreading faster. Researchers are studying the spread of the omicron variant across countries, and one of the outbreaks have caught their attention. The outbreak in a restaurant in Oslo, Norway, where it is believed 80 people gathered for an office party had caught an infection or transmitted the omicron variant.
The researchers studied the Oslo event and concluded that the infected showed symptoms within three days. Further, every person was fully vaccinated and had been tested negative for COVID-19 within 48 hrs of the event.
The virus went from being undetectable to becoming present in huge numbers, enough to transmit in no time. Of course, it will be unwise to extrapolate these observations to populations across the globe, but it does give some clue about the variant.
As the article states, “Shorter incubation periods generally lead to more infections happening in less time, because people are becoming more contagious sooner, making onward transmission harder to prevent.”
Predicting the incubation period is difficult. Many factors influence the incubation period, and to study the effect of each and to what extent each influence can be tricky. Factors like vaccination status, underlying health conditions, infection history, age, and even the dose of the virus people get exposed to decide the COVID-19 incubation period.
Two studies, both unpublished yet, give more information about the omicron variant. A Harvard study points that 30+ mutations in omicron help omicron to attach easily to human cells. In the study, a harmless virus was designed to carry spike proteins of omicron, and the virus was able to easily penetrate human cells that were laid in a dish.
In the second study by Honk Kong University, researchers observed that the omicron variant multiplies dozen times faster than the delta variant in the upper passage of the respiratory system. The finding does indicate that the omicron variant accelerates rapidly towards contagiousness.
How does it affect people?
The unvaccinated are at the greatest risk. But the variant isn’t great news for the fully vaccinated or people who have had COVID-19. The antibodies released due to vaccine or previous infection are not good in identifying the omicron variant.
Without a booster dose, the antibodies cannot block the omicron variant. Eventually, a vaccine or re-infection will train the immune system to fight against the virus. The immune system will release more t-cells to prevent the virus from causing any serious disease, but this will not help in preventing the contagiousness, especially when the contagiousness forms the earlier part of the infection.
The shorter incubation period makes it more difficult to detect infection before it becomes infectious.
What about the existing testing methods?
People need to get tested at shorter intervals: in short, more frequently. Further, now the test results have a shorter validity. As the article puts it, “tests offer just a snapshot of the past, not a forecast of the future; a fast-replicating virus can go from not detectable to very, very detectable in a matter of hours — morning to evening, negatives may not hold.”
In India, before boarding a flight, many states have mandated that people need to have an RT-PCR negative report, not later than 72 hours before boarding. But this timeline makes no sense in the case of the omicron variant, where a person can go from negative to positive in a matter of hours.
How good are PCR tests?
The PCR tests are the backbone of testing so far. The tests take time to give results, and when resources are overburdened, the results can even take longer to come. This time lag can give ample time for Omicron to jump from one body to another. The more swiftly virus becomes infectious, the more important testing speed becomes.
While the Rapid Antigen test (RAT) can be of help, it has limitations. RAT is not as accurate as the PCR test, and secondly, it may fail to detect viruses when the viral load is low or may even fail to detect when people are contagious.
How often people should test?
Ideally, people should get themselves tested repeatedly, maybe every 12 hours, to ensure that they are not carrying the virus. But it’s impractical and impractical given the cost, availability of RATs.
Until tests get speedier or RAT’s become more accessible and affordable, our best bet is mask, ventilation and social distancing. Cutting back as much as possible on travelling and socializing.