The Arrival of the Omicron Variant – Education, Action, Caution & A Rude Awakening for Vaccine Inequity

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Nina Kini, Public Health Editor/Contributing Writer, Placentia CA

As of late, the new Omicron Covid-19 Variant seems to be all over the news. Doctors, community leaders, and politicians continue to send mixed messages about how to best handle the new spreading variant and what it means for the future of our country and the world as a whole. At the same time, many regular people feel unsure about how to respond to the surplus of new information, as they’re often already grappling with the loss of a loved one and ‘pandemic fatigue’. So what is the best method of approach for this new variant, and should we be expecting to see more in the future?

Variant – A Definition

For those without a background in biology or virology, the first important step is understanding what a ‘variant’ actually is. During reproduction, viruses often change small portions of their DNA so that their offspring are slightly genetically different from the parent. These small changes are called ‘mutations,’ and they are found in all living organisms. However, they are especially prevalent in viruses. If a mutation proves to be beneficial to the organism that contains it, then that organism will live a longer life and pass on that mutation to all its offspring. If the mutation proves to have no effect or ends up being harmful, the organism will live a relatively shorter life and not pass on its mutated DNA to many offspring. As such, beneficial mutations quickly become very prevalent in a population. In the context of a virus, some beneficial mutations include altering the virus’s spike proteins (allowing it to latch on easily to a cell), changing its shape/chemical composition so as not to be recognized by the human body anymore, and developing a more durable shell (in order to survive longer without a host) (1). Viruses that have beneficial mutations and spread considerably through a population are known as variants. They are still technically the same virus from before, except some of their characteristics have been modified. 

Omicron – The Application

There have been several Covid-19 variants over the past eighteen months. One might remember the Beta variant, Delta Variant, Delta Plus, and now, of course, Omicron. There have also been countless smaller variants originating from various locations around the world, including the ‘South Africa Strain’ and the ‘U.K. Coronavirus Strain’ (2). Omicron is proving to be a heavily mutated strain, and early data suggests that more young people seem to be affected by it compared to the classically older population. However, most experts in the field agree that much more research is needed before providing a conclusion on the matter. The main new mutations on the Omicron virus are responsible for changing the spike protein, the part of the cell necessary for attaching onto human cells and forcibly pushing the virus through (3)

The Booster Shot – A Way Out?

In addition to the recent buzz around the Omicron variant, the arrival of a third ‘booster shot’ has appeared across news media sites everywhere. So far, Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson have released statements backed up by data suggesting that their booster shots do indeed protect against severe illness from the Omicron Variant (4). At the same time, many of the companies are releasing evidence showing that the initial two-shot round that most people took several months ago is not quite sufficient to protect against the new variant. As such, most medical professionals are urging patients and the general public to get vaccinated with their third dose as soon as possible. Initial vaccination rates look to be promising. However, many eager participants are held back by the 6-month rule, which states that a full 6-month period must pass between the first two-dose course and the third booster shot. This rule is in place for medical safety reasons, though, to ensure that there’s adequate time to check for unwanted side-effects from the initial two doses, as well as to make sure that the immune system has enough time to develop the immune response (and the vaccine doesn’t become ineffective). In addition to getting the booster shot, it’s important to continue the regular Covid-19 precautions that were stressed throughout the entire Pandemic. Many people are struggling with maintaining the same level of rigor for nearly a year and a half now, but it’s important to remember that patience and determination are key. Some measures that need to be taken include consistently and correctly wearing a mask in public, staying home if you feel sick, and frequently using hand sanitizer and washing hands. Also, if you’ve recently been in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19, it might be necessary to get a test or go to a testing center to check yourself. If you have any specific questions about testing or side effects of the disease, make sure to ask a trusted medical professional or doctor. 

Looking Towards the Future – Vaccine Equity

After so many months, many are left wondering when this ‘perpetual pandemic’ will end. In truth, it’s hard to say. The difficult part about ending the Covid-19 pandemic is that the virus mutates quickly and unexpectedly. These new mutated versions of the virus may end up being resistant to the current vaccines that we’ve created, sending us back to square one. In areas where most of the population is unvaccinated or lacks access to a cheap vaccine (as is the case in many third-world countries), the transmission of Covid-19 is usually rampant, and the chance of a potentially dangerous variant being created are extremely high. The only way to ensure that transmission is curbed in these areas is through routine and widespread vaccination. That’s why the only way to stop future variants like Omicron from forming and extending the duration of the pandemic is by getting as much of the world’s population vaccinated as possible.

 

References

1. https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/viruses-and-evolution

2. https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20210407/uk-variant-now-the-dominant-covid-19-strain-in-us

3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/12/16/omicron-variant-mutations-covid/

4. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/pfizer-says-booster-dose-vaccine-protects-omicron-variant-rcna7970