- André Biernath
- BBC Brazil
As soon as omicron was classified as a variant of concern on November 26, interest in the topic skyrocketed on the internet.
According to a Google report obtained by BBC Brazil, “omicron” was the term that grew the most in the search engine.
Discovered in South Africa, the new variant has already been detected in some 40 countries (including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Spain) and is striking for the number and variety of genetic mutations it presents.
For now it is not known for sure how much more transmissible omicron is, or if it manages to evade the immunity obtained through vaccines or by previous infection.
Studies are underway to understand these aspects and the first results should be published this month.
Here are the most popular questions on the internet and answers from the experts.
1. What does omicron mean?
Omicron is the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet.
When the first variants of the coronavirus began to appear, scientists adopted a system to classify them.
Thus, SARS-CoV-2, first identified in Wuhan, China, became variant A.
Thereafter, as mutations were found in the virus, they split with that code. Thus came the variant A.1, A.2, B.1.1, C.30.1, and so on.
But there came a time when this system became a veritable soup of letters (and numbers) that caused tremendous confusion for those who are not experts in the field.
This was one of the factors that led to the World Health Organization (WHO) to create a new criterion from May 2021: the variants of concern (known by the acronym in English VOC, variant of concern) and the variants of interest (VOI, variant of interest) were named with a letter of the Greek alphabet.
As the name suggests, VOCs and VOIs carry important mutations that can make the virus more transmissible or aggressive, for example.
This is how B.1.1.7, discovered in the UK, became alpha; B.1.351 (South Africa) became beta; P.1 (Brazil) became gamma; B.1.617.2 (India) in delta; and B.1.1 .529 (South Africa) in omicron.
These, in fact, are the five VOCs that have emerged so far.
Besides practicality, there is a second reason why the WHO suggested the Greek alphabet. The idea was to avoid prejudices and xenophobic comments that related the variant to its place of origin or discovery.
2. Why the name omicron?
The choice of the omicron name for B.1.529 took the scientific community by surprise.
This is because the last variant to be named with a Greek character was VOI B.1.621, detected in Colombia in January 2021. It is known as mu, which is the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet.
It was therefore thought that the name that would be given to the next VOI or VOC would be the thirteenth letter, which is nu.
But the WHO decided to omit the next two letters and go directly to the 15th: omicron.
Virologist Fernando Spilki, from Feevale University in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, explains that this decision has to do with the sound of these letters in some languages.
“I know people who attended the meetings to choose that name and one of the reasons why nu was removed is that in English its pronunciation sounds very similar to the sound of new [‘nuevo’ en español]. That could confuse people, when they heard the word, they wouldn’t know if it was a new variant or the nu variant “, explains the specialist.
“The next letter of the Greek alphabet would be xi. In this case, the phoneme is very similar to that of some common Chinese surnames, such as Xi [el presidente de ese país, por ejemplo, se llama Xi Jinping]. Therefore, the WHO representatives thought it was better to discard it as well to avoid misunderstandings, “he adds.
If there are no more “jumps” in the alphabet, the following variants will be called pi, ro, sigma, tau, ipsilon, fi, ji, psi, and omega.
3. What is known about the omicron variant?
Despite being detected very recently, omicron attracted a lot of attention for containing several mutations in important parts of the coronavirus, such as the spike. This structure is responsible for connecting to the receptor on human cells and starting infection.
“This new variant brings a large number of mutations, something unprecedented,” explains virologist Flávio da Fonseca, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Brazil.
“Some of these genetic alterations were already known to us, as they also appeared in previous variants and are related to the greater potential for the spread of the virus, which becomes more infectious and is transmitted faster,” says the expert, who is also president of the Brazilian Society of Virology.
Another important observation is the apparent ability of omicron to become dominant: in South Africa it has become the most frequent variant in recent days, even surpassing delta, which is also among the VOCs.
Therefore, experts expect the transmission rate of this newly discovered version of the coronavirus to be quite high.
But there are many things that remain uncertain, such as how much ómicron can elude the immunity gained after vaccination or a previous covid infection.
“Studies are being carried out to measure the real impact of this variant in different scenarios,” reports Spilki.
The trend is for these details to become better known in the coming weeks.
4. What causes the omicron variant?
Despite all the mutations, omicron is still SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19.
As is well known, it is transmitted through droplets of saliva or aerosols that come out of the mouth or nose of an infected person.
In most cases, the disease is mild and the patient recovers after a while. But many affected develop a stronger discomfort and need to be hospitalized, intubated and are at greater risk of dying.
“And here it is worth noting that the prevention methods remain the same with omicron: the use of a mask, physical distance and vaccination remain fundamental,” explains Fonseca.
5. What are the symptoms of the new omicron variant?
Reports from specialists who treated the first omicron-infected patients in South Africa indicate some important changes in the list of main symptoms.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee said that these people more often have tiredness, muscle pain, an itchy throat, a mild fever, and a dry cough.
In an interview with the BBC, he also stated that those affected had so far developed milder effects.
“It all started with a patient with mild symptoms. He said he was extremely tired for two days and had body aches and a bit of a headache. Not even a sore throat, but something like a sore throat. No cough, no loss. smell or taste, “he said.
“Because it was very unusual for this particular patient to have these types of symptoms, I decided to test it. We did a rapid test and it came back positive,” said the doctor, who then examined the entire family of the patient, with positive results for coronavirus, all with mild symptoms.
Experts urge you to be careful with this information – you need to wait a bit longer to be sure if the variant actually causes mild condition.
“The information that comes from South Africa on the lesser severity brings us hope, but we still have to observe it and study it more thoroughly”, reflects Fonseca.
“We still have to understand how omicron will behave in different age groups and population groups,” Spilki agrees.
Now you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download our app and activate them so you don’t miss our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.