The omicron variant is a mystery. Here’s how science will solve it
From last Friday, the race was on, between a virus and information about it. And for a while, information circulated faster, although there was hardly any.
Scientists in South Africa have identified a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 – within days the World Health Organization named it the omicron sci-fi spy – and due to the abundant assortment of mutations in its spike protein, the nanomechanical tentacle that attaches and cracks in cells, scientific alarms have started to sound.
But to be clear, these were the “We should check this” alarms, not the “Everyone’s crazy” alarms. Apparently, they look alike, however. The panic has taken hold as scientists have identified the omicron in 18 countries, triggering travel bans, border closures, stock market crashes and, in the United States, holiday weekend worries that world returns to March 2020. Researchers in South Africa and Botswana have found most of the cases so far, although this may be an artefact of their research; Dutch authorities announced on Tuesday that the first case they could identify was 11 days before the identification of omicron in South Africa.
This means that the omicron variant is widespread and mysterious – a palimpsest wrapped in a hologram draped in a Rorschach test – because no one knows anything yet. Public health officials cannot yet say whether it is more virulent or more transmissible than the delta, which since last summer has crowded out most other variants of SARS-CoV-2. So panic; or not. It’s yours. Because now scientists have to work on the problem.
Things scientists don’t know, but need to know: How efficiently does the omicron move from person to person? Can he escape the immunity conferred by a previous infection or by vaccines? Does this cause more serious illness? “We need many types of data,” says Angela Rasmussen, coronavirologist at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Organization-International Vaccine Center in Saskatchewan, Canada. This means obtaining genomic and epidemiological data, understanding the immunological differences of the variant, and collecting statistics on groundbreaking infections and hospitalizations.
This is all going to be complicated, because a crucial piece of information is missing: how long has omicron been around the world. These new Dutch data suggest it lasted longer than health planners initially hoped. Whether it’s the start of a wave – or the middle or end of a wave that no one has noticed – is key. “It seems to have been detected early in a recovery, at a time when everyone was focusing on the delta,” says John Connor, a microbiologist at Boston University and a researcher at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. “The advantage of having this information early is that the rest of the world can start looking at all the questions raised by a new variant: are our diagnostics still working? Does it seem like the immune response generated by vaccines can still neutralize this? virus?”
If this is just the beginning, say, then everyone with omicron could still be a tight-knit bunch, demographically or biologically speaking. This could make the variant more dangerous – moving faster or making people sicker – if this group were, for some reason, more vulnerable than the general population. Or the opposite could be true. To figure this out, disease dynamics researchers could do “forensic accounting” to see how previous waves like the delta have behaved and compare that to what’s happening with the omicron. It could tell if they are underestimated or overestimated how bad an omicron wave could be. “If I had evaluated delta using only the period of time that is approximately now, how much of a mistake would I have been?” Says Matthew Ferrari, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University.
In short: Based on early data, scientists knew very little about delta. Now they know it by heart. They will need the same patience to understand omicron. As a first step, more details on the genetic structure of the variant, initially generated by scientists in South Africa, could help with the first ideas about the behavior of the variant as it spreads. “We can then deduce from genetics how this virus can escape neutralization of antibodies, whether or not it will escape vaccines,” said Deenan Pillay, virologist at University College London. But that’s just an inference, he adds: “You can never know, but you can make a calculated assessment based on what we know about the genetics of other variants.”