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Sunday, September 24, 2023

The new virus variant omikron: this is what we know about it so far


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One country after another has closed its borders to flights from southern Africa in recent days, for fear of the new corona variant omikron. The virus has probably already been found in the Netherlands. What do we know about the new mutated variant? Six questions and answers.

1. Where does the virus come from?

The variant with the scientific name B.1.1.529 first appeared in Botswana. After that, it was also found in South Africa, especially in the northern province of Gauteng. It quickly spread across the country. The virus has now also been detected in Belgium, Italy, England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Australia and Israel.

2. Why are there more concerns about this variant than others?

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the newly discovered variant has been labelled ‘worrying’. The first research results show that the mutation, which has since been renamed the omikron variant, is spreading much faster than the current variants.

According to bioinformatics professor Tulio de Oliveira, the now discovered virus variant is unusually different from previous versions. The spike protein to enter the cell deviates in 32 places. That’s the structure the virus uses to get into the cells it attacks.

“What exactly that means, we don’t know yet,” said Hugo Tempelman, a Dutch doctor who works in South Africa. “We still have too little data for that. What it now looks like is that this variant is more contagious.”

More contagious does not automatically mean more serious, said Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst. “If the omikron variant were less pathogenic, the greater infectivity (allowing omikron to replace delta) would be very positive,” he tweeted.

The variant of the coronavirus can therefore have a beneficial effect on the pandemic if the mutant is more contagious but less harmful.

3. Do people get sicker from the omikron variant?

That is not known yet. It is also not yet clear how the virus variant reacts to people who have already had the coronavirus.

4. Has the virus already been diagnosed in the Netherlands?

Probably. The new corona variant omikron has been found with 95 per cent certainty in the Netherlands, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) reported yesterday. The variant was found in several passengers who were on flights from South Africa to the Netherlands on Friday. It is not yet known how many infections are involved.

A deviating protein has been found in a number of passengers that corresponds to the new omikron variant. As a result, RIVM can say with 95 per cent certainty that a number of passengers are infected with the variant. Follow-up research should provide a definitive answer.

About sixty passengers will stay in the quarantine hotel at Schiphol. It concerns infected people, but also some negatively tested partners. Some of them had come to Schiphol by car and lived alone, they are allowed to quarantine at home. That concerns at least five people said the GGD Kennemerland.

The GGD is calling on people who have come from South Africa to the Netherlands since Monday to test themselves.

5. How is it determined whether the variant is circulated in the Netherlands?

To determine whether new variants of the coronavirus such as the omikron variant are present in the Netherlands, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) carries out so-called germ surveillance. To that end, 1,000 random samples of positive PCR tests from across the country are analyzed in labs every week.

The samples are examined for the building blocks from which the virus is built, the RIVM reports. That’s called a sequence analysis. These building blocks are compared with other samples, both from the Netherlands and abroad. In this way, it can be determined whether a certain variant is present in the Netherlands or not.

This laboratory study takes more time than that of a ‘normal’ PCR test. “Within 24 hours we have the results of a PCR test, with a sequence analysis it takes longer,” says a spokeswoman for the Rotterdam hospital Erasmus MC, where one of the laboratories that analyzes the samples is located. “I am not yet able to say how long this research into the omikron variant will take.”

6. Do our vaccines help against this new variant?

Whether our vaccinations respond to this variant is too early to say, virologist Marion Koopmans a media outlet. “But it’s important to see if this virus escapes vaccination protection.”

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