Omicron variant of the coronavirus: is it spread between people already vaccinated?

The new Omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected in South Africa and rekindled the debate on equity in access to vaccines globally (REUTERS / Dado Ruvic)

More than 4.27 billion people worldwide have received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That figure is equivalent to 55.6% of the world’s population. In Latin America, 68% have at least one dose. So far, the different licensed vaccines against COVID-19 have shown high efficacy in reducing infections, hospitalizations and deaths. But now Ómicron appeared, a variant of the coronavirus that led to an emergency meeting on Friday and was classified as a “priority” globally. A question that arises in the current context of vaccination plans is: can Ómicron be transmitted between people already vaccinated?

The COVID-19 vaccines that were developed during 2020 have proven highly effective in preventing infection, severe illness, and death if a person is exposed to the coronavirus. Its benefits have turned the tide of the pandemic despite the emergence of priority variants of the coronavirus such as Delta, which had been detected in India in October last year.

Today the majority of people who acquire the infection are those who are not yet immunized. But since inoculants are not 100% effective in prevention, some people who are already fully vaccinated may have the infection because the community circulation of the coronavirus still persists.

Dennis Malattji is one of the few vaccinated people in South Africa.  Only 24% of the general population of that country has the complete scheme (REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko / Archive)
Dennis Malattji is one of the few vaccinated people in South Africa. Only 24% of the general population of that country has the complete scheme (REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko / Archive)

Consulted by Infobae, the Conicet researcher Carolina Torres, who is part of the Country Project, the genomic surveillance consortium of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation of Argentina, commented: “At the moment, there would be nothing to suggest that the Omicron variant has a different behavior from the rest of the already known variants with respect to vaccination. It can probably be transmitted like the others. If it can be transmitted more or less between people already vaccinated, we still do not know ”. Torres researches virology at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Biochemistry of the University of Buenos Aires and is a member of the Argentine Society of Virology.

The emergence of a new variant of concern reignited the global debate on vaccine distribution, virus mutation, and vaccine protection today. Some experts have suggested that the emergence of a new variant could be the result of low levels of vaccine coverage in developing countries. Around 74% of the vaccines that have been put into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.7% of the doses have been administered in low-income countries.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is “highly transmissible” and requires “urgent action”, the G7 Health Ministers considered today after an emergency meeting called by London. “The world community faces the threat of a new variant, in a first assessment, highly communicable of COVID-19, which requires urgent action”Health ministers said in a joint statement after an emergency meeting.

The World Health Organization (WHO) today classified the global risk associated with the variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 Omicron as “very high” given that its high number of mutations, some of them worrying, may be associated with “a potential immunological leakage ”and to“ higher transmissibility ”. Due to its recent emergence, The new variant still raises a wide ignorance and uncertainties, among which the WHO highlights the degree of transmissibility, the efficacy of vaccines against infection, transmission, medical pathology in different degrees of severity and death, and if the variant presents a different gravity pattern.

Today, WHO recommended that Member States take priority actions to improve preparedness and response to the Omicron variant. Among them, it recommended “guaranteeing the existence of early warning systems, guaranteeing the existence of mitigation plans to maintain essential health services and the necessary health care resources to respond to possible surges, and periodically communicate evidence-based information on Omicron and other variants in circulation.

“Note that the overall risk related to Ómicron is considered very tall for several reasons. First, the global risk of COVID-19 remains very high overall, and second, there is worrying preliminary evidence on Ómicron that suggests, in contrast to previous variants of concern, both a potential immune escape and increased transmissibility. which could lead to further increases with serious consequences. The evidence for that assessment contains considerable uncertainty and will be updated as more information becomes available, ”the WHO said today in a statement.

With air travel, the variants circulate around the world. Ómicron would be “highly transmissible” and “requires urgent action,” said the G7 health ministers today. (EFE / EPA / FRANCK ROBICHON)

Since South Africa detected the Omicron variant in COVID-19 patients and shared the data with WHO last week, genomic surveillance labs have been looking for it in other countries. To date, more than 160 cases have already been detected in Botswana, the Netherlands, Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, Hong Kong, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Japan, and Switzerland.

On Laboratories associated with the World Health Organization and in the companies that developed the vaccines are already carrying out studies to evaluate the protection offered by vaccines against the threat of the Omicron variant. It contains 32 changes only in the spike protein of the coronavirus. This includes mutations that can increase transmission and evade immunity. Therefore, there is a risk that the omicron variant will spread rapidly and reduce (although not eliminate) the effectiveness of current vaccines, said scientists Jennifer Juno, from the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity, along with Adam Wheatley, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne, Australia, in an article they published in The Conversation.

The WHO has already reported that it is working “with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical in reducing serious illness and mortality, including against the dominant virus in circulation, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against serious illness and death. “

Jim Naismith, Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, today acknowledged that there are still no answers to these three questions: The first is what is the spread rate of Omicron versus that of the Delta variant of concern. The second question is whether it causes more or less the same disease as Delta and the third is the extent to which it can evade immunity.

The rate of spread of Ómicron is being investigated compared to that of the variant of concern Delta, which was the highest among all those that have arisen since the pandemic began (REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / Archive)
The rate of spread of Ómicron is being investigated compared to that of the variant of concern Delta, which was the highest among all those that have arisen since the pandemic began (REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / Archive)

“The three questions are crucial. We have a clue to the first question, some initial data suggests that the virus can spread rapidly. However, I caution that this may change. It is too early to know about the second question. Based on scientific studies of various changes in the coronavirus Spike protein and our understanding of the structural biology of neutralization, we would expect this variant to be less susceptible to immunity, either from the vaccine or from a previous infection. ” Naismith argued.

“The vaccines we have are safe and effective, and they have greatly reduced serious illness and death,” said Dr. Naishmith. They will continue to be effective up to a point, which is why I urge everyone to wear theirs. In addition, there are new drugs that are going to work and will not be affected by the changes to Omicron. Beyond vaccination, ventilation is an effective measure, as is the use of a chinstrap or mask.

It is estimated that the results of studies on the new variant of concern and vaccines will not be ready for at least two weeks. The developers of two of the COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are preparing to reformulate their vaccines if necessary.

Following the appearance of Ómicron, the developers of two of the COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are preparing to reformulate their vaccines if necessary (REUTERS / Dado Ruvic)
Following the appearance of Ómicron, the developers of two of the COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are preparing to reformulate their vaccines if necessary (REUTERS / Dado Ruvic)

At the Moderna company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which developed one of the two licensed messenger RNA vaccines against COVID-19, the “alarm” had sounded last Tuesday. The company’s team tracking the variants observed unusual activity in a global database managed by the GISAID Initiative, a nonprofit organization, as scientists around the world began uploading information about a new variant.

While, in the company AstraZeneca, which developed its vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford, reported that it is conducting research in Botswana and Swaziland (Eswatini), in Africa. There the Omicron variant has also been identified and studies are being done to obtain real world data on the performance of the vaccine..

The Gamaleya Institute of Russia reported today in a statement that “it has begun to develop the new version of the Sputnik vaccine adapted to Omicron. In the unlikely event that such a modification is necessary, the new version of Sputnik Omicron can be ready for full-scale production in 45 days. Several hundred million Sputnik Omicron boosters can be delivered to international markets as early as February 20, 2022, with more than 3 billion doses available in 2022. “

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