Omicron variant: what is it and what are the symptoms of the infection?

Omicron variant – what is it? On 26 November 2021, the World Health Organisation designated the variant B.1.1.529, called Omicron, as a new variant of concern (VOC) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus

As we know, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is particularly prone to mutations, just like the Coronavirus family to which it belongs.

However, mutations must be studied and monitored because sometimes – as in the case of the Delta variant – they can affect the characteristics of the virus, giving it, for example, greater transmissibility, greater aggressiveness, a greater capacity to cause severe forms of COVID-19 or to overcome the immunity acquired by an individual through vaccination or previous infection.

Little is known about the Omicron variant, but measures to combat the pandemic remain effective and unchanged.

What is the Omicron variant?

The Omicron variant was first detected on 11 November 2021 in Botswana and on 14 November 2021 in South Africa.

As of 26 November, the variant has also been detected in other countries, including Italy.

In Italy, the first case of Omicron was identified and confirmed on 28 November 2021.

Variant analysis is carried out – under the coordination of the National Institute of Health, Istituto Superiore di Sanità – by the laboratories of the individual regions, according to precise quality standards.

Since 29 April 2021, the platform for the genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 variants (I-Co-Gen) has been active, allowing the collection and analysis of the sequences identified in Italy and “dialogue” with international platforms.

The platform makes it possible to indicate sequences of particular interest at an early stage, as was the case with Omicron.

The Omicron variant has around 30 mutations in the spike protein, the so-called ‘key’ that allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus to enter cells, release its viral genetic code (RNA) and force cells to produce viral proteins that create new coronaviruses: these in turn bind to other cells and carry on the infection.

The large number of mutations in the spike protein and the significant divergence of this variant from the original virus is a cause for concern because it is feared that this could mean greater transmissibility, due to faster and easier spread from one person to another, greater severity of infection or greater evasion of the immune response.

At the moment, however, no data are available and research on the new variant is ongoing, with researchers around the world coordinated by the World Health Organisation.

Is the Omicron variant more contagious?

Among the issues to be clarified is transmissibility: it is not yet clear whether the Omicron variant spreads more easily from person to person than the other variants, including Delta.

Preliminary data from South Africa – where the variant has been identified – suggest that Omicron may have a greater ability to spread from person to person and a substantial growth advantage over the Delta variant.

Whether the Omicron variant is responsible for more severe forms of COVID-19 remains to be seen, but at present the symptoms appear to be the same as those of the other variants.

There are currently 352 confirmed cases of Omicron variant, reported from 27 countries (as of 1 December)

All cases for which we have information on severity are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and no severe cases or deaths have been reported.

Another important element that research is focusing on is the increased possibility that an individual cured of COVID-19 could re-infect with the Omicron variant.

Again, further studies are needed to understand whether and how Omicron circumvents the immunity derived from the vaccine or from having had COVID-19.

COVID-19: symptoms not to be underestimated

Symptoms of COVID-19 vary depending on the severity of the disease: some people are asymptomatic (but still contagious), while others may experience symptoms such as fever, cough, cold, sore throat, weakness and muscle pain.

More serious cases present pneumonia, breathing difficulties and other complications.

As we know, sudden loss of sense of smell (anosmia) or diminished sense of smell (hyposmia), loss of taste (ageusia) or taste alteration (dysgeusia) have also been recognised as symptoms of COVID-19.

Less specific symptoms are headaches, chills, myalgia, vomiting and/or diarrhoea.
At this stage of the pandemic, when a large number of people are vaccinated, it is nevertheless important not to underestimate any symptoms – even mild ones – that can be traced back to COVID-19.

In the event of infection, in fact, vaccinated people develop mild forms of the disease (as has been observed so far with the Omicron variant) with mild symptoms that can often be easily confused with seasonal ailments (colds, coughs, sore throats).

It is worth remembering that vaccines are highly effective in reducing the risk of infection, but they cannot eliminate it because there are many variables involved (from the effectiveness of the vaccine itself to one’s own health conditions, from the precautions one takes to the contexts one frequents).

What is confirmed is their importance in preventing serious illness and death.

Are vaccines effective against the Omicron variant?

All available vaccines offer significant protection against severe COVID-19, and reducing the circulation of the virus also limits the likelihood of it mutating and producing worrying variants, such as Delta and Omicron.

However, the World Health Organisation is studying the potential impact of Omicron on pandemic containment measures, including vaccines.

Omicron variant: vaccine, masks and spacing for protection

The most effective protective measures remain the known ones:

  • Vaccinate (starting/completing the primary vaccination cycle) and take the booster dose when it is your turn.
  • Wear a mask, covering your nose and mouth in enclosed spaces and outdoors in crowded areas, in accordance with the regulations in force.
  • Wash your hands well and often or sanitise them.
  • Keep a distance of at least one metre from other people.
  • Circulate air in enclosed areas.

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