Being a combination of a far larger number of mutations that are different and more potent than what the existing vaccines are designed to stave off, Omicron will render them toothless, they feared. Like the influenza vaccine, which is altered every year, it is time to change the Covid vaccine as well, they argued.
The initial reports on the variant are extremely worrying, especially since international air travel is opening up, said Peerless Hospital microbiologist Bhaskar Narayan Chowdhury. “It’s a cluster of mutations that are resistant to the existing Covid antibodies and are more transmissible than any of the mutations that we have seen. So, our vaccines will not work against it and this can spread faster than any of the earlier variants. We need to develop a vaccine against this as soon as possible,” said Chowdhury. He added that while other variants, too, have spread from South Africa, Omicron seemed to be a far more virulent one.
South African studies have called Omicron ‘a very unusual constellation of mutations, more than 30 in the spike protein alone, 10 more at the ACE2 receptor’. It is believed to have ‘enhanced transmissibility’ and might be able to get around our immune system.
The cat-and-mouse game between the virus and the vaccine will have to continue, said CMRI director of pulmonology Raja Dhar. “With every mutation of the virus, the existing vaccines will lose efficacy. So, vaccines must be dynamic and change every year, factoring in the extent of the mutation. This variant seems dangerous since it apparently has multiple mutations at the ACE 2 receptor where the antibodies generated by vaccines bind,” said Dhar.
The news of this new strain comes at a time when we are in the reopening mode. Careful and responsible behaviour would be a better response to this variant of concern than panic.
Even though Omicron has not yet affected a large number, it has already been detected in several African nations and even in Hong Kong. “This is indeed like a new virus since it has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone. If it spreads fast, we may have to think of altering the vaccine to neutralize Omicron or else the pandemic will flare up yet again. We still have a large section of unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people who are vulnerable in any case. A dead virus vaccine like Covaxin, I believe, will be more effective against this variant than Covishield,” said Belle Vue Clinic internal medicine consultant Rahul Jain.
Some, however, felt it could be too early to press the panic button. Rather, we should stick to Covid-appropriate behaviour and focus on completing vaccination, said RN Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences (RTIICS) intensivist Sauren Panja. “Studies on Omicron are still at a nascent stage and let us wait to see if it’s indeed as virulent and transmissible as the first reports claim. It would be wrong to conclude now that the existing vaccines won’t work at all,” said Panja.