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Will the Omicron Variant Go Viral?

Dec 13, 2021 6:04 AM 4 min read

Less than two weeks since B.1.1.529 - named after the Greek letter "Omicron" - was declared a COVID-19 variant of concern (VOC), it has already been reported in at least 57 countries.

Due to Omicron’s “very unusual constellations of mutations” - many of them novel - there were widespread fears about increased transmissibility, immune system evasion, and possible resistance against vaccines.

These concerns - and the fact that there was so much the world didn’t know about B.1.1.529 - sparked massive market volatility and led to a reimposition of pandemic restrictions across countries.

As of today, however, we are on stronger ground with respect to the new variant. Epidemiologically, at least.


Omicron Update

Last week, the WHO confirmed that Omicron is indeed more transmissible and comes with an "increased risk of reinfection". However, citing preliminary data from South Africa, the organisation added that its symptoms are so far milder than earlier variants’.

As for vaccine efficacy, it will likely take a few more weeks before scientists can definitively ascertain existing vaccines' effectiveness against Omicron. The current affirmations we have are all over the place.

A WHO official was quoted by AFP on Tuesday as saying there is “no reason” to believe that existing vaccines will fail against the variant. At the same time, some early studies claimed Omicron could make vaccines 40% less effective. Two other studies - one by Pfizer and another conducted in South Africa (not yet peer-reviewed) - suggest that the typical two-dose vaccine regimen may have significantly reduced ability to neutralise the Omicron variant and that an additional booster dose may be needed.

What seems to be more certain is that Omicron’s myriad of mutations may render it more formidable a foe for natural immunity to deal with. (Natural immunity is the one you get from previous exposure to the virus, unlike vaccine-induced immunity.)

This may explain why Omicron is already the dominant variant in South Africa. As recently as last month, the pandemic was showing signs of receding in that country, but now a new wave has emerged. And Omicron is rising in South Africa despite high rates of past infection with COVID (earlier sero surveys had found 60-80% of the population may have previously been infected). Meanwhile, vaccination rates are relatively low, at about 35%.

FYI: Delta is the dominant variant across the globe today, making up 99.8% of sequences uploaded to GISAID. If you’ll remember, that was the variant that caused the devastating Second Wave in India.

It’s critical to note here that there still isn’t sufficient data to draw a solid conclusion. To quote WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, it's “too early to be sure” and more information and time is needed to have a “complete picture” on the risks and impact of Omicron.


COVID-19 Update

The Winter Olympics are in two months. India is gearing up for high-profile state elections in early 2022. The 15-month-long farm protests ended only today. Dalal Street allegedly finds IPOs blasé suddenly. Investors have more than a few unkind things to say about Paytm. Parliament is likely to discuss cryptocurrencies and data protection soon. Offices are open, airports are jam-packed, #wanderlust is trending on social media again, and every other person you know seems to be getting married.

Considering all the normalcy that’s abuzz, it may seem unbelievable that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. That too one that inspired a full-fledged lockdown last year and made morbid dystopias of our cities only seven months ago.

But even as we have adapted to the new normal - or become oblivious that we have - COVID rages on. As of December 8th, there have been over 266 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 (actual number would be higher) and over 5 million reported deaths (again, actual number would be higher) worldwide. There were 673,503 new confirmed cases yesterday and 7,974 reported deaths. India has been reporting <10,000 cases and <500 deaths for many days now, a marked improvement over the past few months.

COVID’s casualty curve has largely plateaued or fallen in many countries thanks to vaccinations. But with vaccinations geographically uneven, the pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives every day. More than half of adult Indians, for instance, are fully-vaccinated, thanks to a drive that has picked up pace after initial hiccups. The numbers are higher in developed nations in the West. However, coverage is much lower in countries like Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and Bangladesh, where vaccine inequality is to blame.

Of late, a worrisome resurgence in cases in some regions has led to fresh restrictions. Austria, for instance, was forced to resort to a nationwide lockdown last month. Germany, Italy, Czechia and the Netherlands, which are confronting a steady increase in cases, have announced restrictions on the unvaccinated.

And now there’s Omicron. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says it could become the dominant variant in Europe within months, warning of increasing “cases, deaths, hospitalisations and ICU admissions” in the coming weeks. Many countries across the world have rushed to reimpose restrictions, amping up quarantine requirements for incoming travellers or issuing country-specific travel bans. Israel shut its borders for all travellers following Omicron’s classification as a VOC. Hong Kong added over 30 more countries to its high-risk category for 21-day quarantines. India deferred its date for resumption of scheduled international flights.

Countries are also rethinking their policies on booster shots and vaccines for children.

Meanwhile, companies are reconsidering their return-to-office plans now. Jefferies, Apple and Google have postponed their dates, opting to wait-and-watch. As for markets, they are less volatile today than they were last week, thanks to the additional information that we have on the variant. However, as more countries report more Omicron cases, another wave in the near-term would inadvertently push indices down, even if temporarily, and jeopardise the already-delicate economic recovery, particularly in India.

Ergo, it’s absolutely crucial that we don’t let our guard down and enable an Omicron wave this winter. After all, even if the new variant’s severity is lower than that of Delta's, increased transmissibility can translate to more hospitalisations, pushing health infrastructures to the brink, like in April and May this year.

And Omicron is highly likely to be more infectious - a study by Japanese scientists suggests that it is 4.2x more transmissible than Delta.


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