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How dangerous is the latest corona variant?

The omicron variant (B.1.1.529) was discovered in South Africa on 24 November after an unusually large increase in the number of cases in and around Johannesburg. In Germany, the first omicron cases were recorded on November 27 and 28 in travelers returning from South Africa – meanwhile, four omicron cases have been clearly demonstrated in this country, eight more are suspected. Here’s what we know so far about the new virus mutation.

Omikron: How dangerous is the latest variant of the crown?

Due to the rapid spread in South Africa and now at least 17 other countries, 12 of which are European, the omicron variant can be expected to be highly contagious. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), responsible for this is probably the high number of mutations in the spike protein – Approximately 30 changes have been detected compared to the original virus. Since these occur, among other things, at sites of the protein associated with improved transmission and what is known as immune evasion, experts expect Omikron significantly more contagious it could be and could also be transmitted more easily to those who are cured and to those who have been vaccinated. In South Africa, nearly three-quarters of the new reported infections can be traced back to Omicron. Previous data prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 26 to classify Omicron as a so-called variant of the virus of interest (“Variant of interest”).

As the data situation is still very limited, it cannot be said at the moment whether Omicron is more dangerous than the previously dominant Delta variant or not. To this end, further clinical and epidemiological investigations are necessary. After all, none of the omcron-infected German returnees had to be hospitalized – mild courses have been reported. Everyone was vaccinated. However, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) estimates the risk of Omicron as high to very high and assumes that the new variant could also prevail over Delta in Europe within a few months.

Does vaccination protect against omicron?

Due to mutations in the spike protein sites responsible for so-called immune leak, there is currently great concern that previous vaccines may be less effective against Omicron. However, it is still unclear whether this is actually the case. However, in an interview with ZDF today, virologist Christian Drosten speculated that vaccines also protect against omicrons: “According to the current assessment, it should be assumed that available vaccines will continue to protect in principle.” It is therefore all the more important to increase the vaccination rate and continue to distribute booster vaccinations, according to Drosten: “The best protection against the new variant is therefore to fill all vaccination gaps in the population and quickly administer booster vaccinations.”

The Biontech vaccine against Omicron is probably still effective

A study by the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa found that the Biontech / Pfizer vaccine may offer slightly less protection against the new omicron variant of the coronavirus. The reason for this hypothesis is the observation that the neutralization of omicron by the Biontech vaccine is less effective than previous corona variants. One lower level of neutralizing antibodies it could mean lower immune protection, but it doesn’t have to be. Because in addition to antibodies, that too Immune memory from T cells and B cells responsible for the defense against corona viruses. Study leader Alex Sigal believes Omicron does not have complete immune evasion from the vaccine and therefore full vaccination is still effective. Biontech founder Ugur Sahin also said, according to explanel.de, “that a booster vaccination can still provide adequate protection against a disease of any severity caused by the omicron variant.”

Do rapid tests and PCR tests recognize the omicron variant?

Fortunately, an infection with the omicron variant appears to be detectable even with the currently used and common rapid and PCR tests. Virologist Sandra Ciesek posted on Twitter that conventional antigen tests from various manufacturers have successfully identified Omikron.