Just when the world was breathing a collective sigh of relief that the worst of the COVID- 19 pandemic was over, here comes another potential disaster! On the 24th of November, 2021, a new COVID variant of concern, B. 1.1.529, labeled "Omicron" was reported to the WHO from South Africa. Remember, in recent weeks, infections have increased steeply and this coincides with the detection of Omicron. This has ominous implications as the latest variant is reportedly more infective and more resistant to the vaccines. The WHO has labelled it a "variant of concern" on the 26th of November, 2021 for these reasons.

The WHO labels a SARS –CoV- 2 variant as a variant of concern (VOC) if it manifests any one of the following changes from the earlier variants:

· More transmissible OR

· More virulent (or dangerous) OR

· Has different symptoms OR

· More difficult to detect by usual lab tests OR

· Less responsiveness to social measures, medications, and vaccines

Preliminary data have shown that Omicron has got more than 30 different mutations in the spike protein area. This makes it more transmissible and less responsive to the vaccines as compared to its predecessor variants – the Beta and the Delta variants.

Fortunately, the Omicron variant has not yet been detected in India but this is just a matter of time. So far, this variant has been detected in South Africa, Australia, Italy, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel, and Botswana.

However, there is no need to panic as pharmaceutical companies say they can update vaccines to match the Omicron variant in around 100 days if needed. Also, at present we have newer therapeutic weapons in our armory like Molnupiravir, Paxlovidand the antibody cocktail of Casirivimab, and Imdevimab. These are likely to be effective against all COVID variants.

The age-old measures of sanitization, masking, and social distancing still stand good and should not be abandoned.

The mantra for today is "if we are wary, this won't get scary"

Dr Ravi Andrews

Dr Ravi Andrews is a Senior Nephrologist at Apollo Hospital, Hyderabad.

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