South African researchers are working around the clock to discover more about the newly identified Omicron variant.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his address to the nation on Sunday evening, urged citizens to get vaccinated amid a looming fourth wave and the discovery of the new variant.
Here are three things we know about Omicron.
1. SA scientists predicted and prepared for a new variant
As early as September, South African scientists said they expected the Covid-19 fourth wave to be driven by a new variant. This was based on what was witnessed in previous waves, where each wave was driven by a new variant.
The new variant, B.1.1.529, or Omicron, was initially thought to have originated in Gauteng. However, the earliest sample showing the variant was collected in Botswana on 11 November.
Epidemiologist and member of the African Task Force for Coronavirus, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, said the early identification of the new variant would be beneficial to combating the fourth wave.
“We've been expecting this, and we anticipated it will come. We don't know exactly when it would come, what it would look like, but we had some ideas and predictions about what was the likely scenario,” he said.
Ramaphosa said the identification of the Omicron variant coincides with a sudden rise of Covid-19 infections in Gauteng.
Last week, the country saw an average of 1 600 new cases over seven days compared to just 500 new daily cases in the previous week.
Average daily cases have since risen to over 2 500 per day.
2. It has more mutations than previous variants
The Omicron variant has more mutations than previous variants, with more than 30 mutations on its spike protein.
Researchers from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said there are certain mutations that are concerning.
The mutations have not been observed in this combination before, but as with all viruses, scientists expect new variants to continue to emerge wherever the virus is spreading.
There are currently no unusual symptoms associated with the Omicron variant, and research is underway to determine if the mutations could lead to increased transmissibility or if it could evade vaccine immunity.
The World Health Organization's technical lead on Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said the Omicron is a variant of concern because it has some concerning properties.
“It has a large number of mutations. Some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics. There's a lot of work that is ongoing in South Africa and in other countries to better characterise the variant itself, in terms of transmissibility, in terms of severity and any impact on our counter- measures like the use of diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines,” she said.
3. Existing vaccines will likely be effective against it
Existing Covid-19 vaccines are likely to be effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalisation from the Omicron variant, according to Karim.
Work is under way to determine the immune escape potential of the new variant.
The NICD said that partial immune escape is likely, but vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death.
Keep an eye out next week for another round-up of the top Covid-19 stories.