This Is the Only Good News About the New COVID Variant, Experts Say
Officials fear Omicron could spread rapidly, but there's one advantage to the COVID variant.
From 61 passengers on two planes to the Netherlands to 13 players on a Portugal soccer team, the Omicron variant is quickly moving its way through the world. This new variant, which was first identified in South Africa, has been detected in about 20 counties so far, per The Washington Post. As a result, many virus experts are already sounding the alarm. Countries have halted flights and introduced new travel restrictions to try to mitigate the spread, with health officials fearful that the Omicron variant could be even more infectious than Delta. There are also serious concerns that the variant's record-breaking mutations could make it more capable of evading existing vaccines. But while there's plenty to worry about, Omicron does come with an undeniable advantage.
While there's still so much we don't know about the variant, virus experts say there's one piece of good news: Omicron is easy to test for. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), current PCR tests used to identify positive COVID infections can detect this particular variant, and several labs have indicated that in one widely used PCR test, one of the three usual target genes—the S gene—does not show up when dealing with the Omicron variant.
"Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection," the WHO explained.
While the Delta variant had nine mutations to the spike protein compared to the original iteration of COVID, the Omicron variant has at least 30 mutations, per science news outlet Ars Technica. Some of these mutations interfere with a PCR test's ability to recognize the presence of the spike protein, producing a PCR test result that comes back spike-negative but virus-positive. Full gene sequencing can then be used to confirm that the infection is from the Omicron variant.
ThermoFisher, a diagnostics company behind the TaqPath PCR test, has already confirmed that its test can detect this new variant, Reuters reported on Nov. 29.
"The Thermo Fisher test allowed us to detect cases that may contain the new variant by identifying samples exhibiting S-gene dropout," Tulio de Oliveira, PhD, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said in a statement. "This early identification is very important in helping us track and understand the spread of the [Omicron] variant to South Africa and the world."
A large number of mutations on the spike protein of the virus might allow for easier testing and tracing, but they could also cause problems for existing vaccines. According to Nebraska Medicine, the spike protein is the target of all the approved COVID vaccines because it is unique to SARS-CoV-2 and doesn't look like any of the other proteins your body makes. The antibodies created against the spike protein by these vaccines will therefore only target the coronavirus, and won't harm the rest of your body. But for a variant with as many spike protein mutations, that could spell trouble for the antibodies' ability to recognize the virus.
"Based on lots of work people have done on other variants and other mutations, we can be pretty confident these mutations are going to cause an appreciable drop in antibody neutralization," Jesse Bloom, PhD, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, told The New York Times. "We really need to be vigilant about this new variant and preparing for it."
More research still needs to be done to determine how significantly Omicron will affect the COVID vaccines we have now, with Bloom saying that we'll likely have a better sense of how necessary it might be to develop an Omicron-specific vaccine in a few weeks. The WHO also said it will continue to conduct research on whether or not this new variant can be detected in other ways beyond PCR tests.
"Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests," the global organization said. "WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron. More information will emerge in the coming days and weeks."