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Explainer on Omicron: How dangerous is the new variant of the coronavirus and what do we know?

Omicron, the new variant of the Coronavirus has triggered a wave of concern around the world. On 26 November 2021 the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the variant B.1.1.529, named Omicron, a variant of concern. 

The variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021. A specimen collected on November 9, was the first confirmed infection from the variant.

On 11 December, Bangladesh confirms the first Omicron cases. Two players of Bangladesh women’s cricket teams tested positive while they were under quarantine upon returning from Zimbabwe.

What we need to understand about Omicron

It’s very early days in terms of understanding this variant. WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to understand Omicron better.

According to the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, there were 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body’s cells.

Media brief by World Health Organization (WHO) on December 2, 2021

The new variant ‘Omicron’ has been confirmed in 23 countries, said WHO in a media briefing on December 2. Later, the United States and India confirmed new cases of Omicron, bringing the list of countries with Omicron cases to 25. 

On December 8, WHO has said that the Omicron variant has been reported in 57 countries.

According to the weekly epidemiological report by WHO, published on December 21, the Omicron variant has been confirmed in 106 countries.

Tweet by Director-General of the World Health Organization

Transmissibility and Severity

The WHO Health Emergencies Programme Technical Lead for Covid19, Dr Maria Van Kerkove, briefed about the transmissibility on Wednesday, December 2. She said WHO is expecting more data within days. 

Dr Maria Van Kerkove was briefing at the media brief on December 2

With about 50 mutations, experts have not yet confirmed whether the Omicron is more or less deadly than other types of the corona. 

Based on limited information, preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron among people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily as compared to other variants of concern.

“In terms of the severity profile, we have seen cases of Omicron with mild disease to severe symptoms. With regards to severity, there are studies underway looking at the hospitalizations, looking at those individuals who are hospitalized, whether they have this variant or not,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkove while saying WHO is still unaware about the severity. 

What are the symptoms?

Chair of South African Medical Association Dr Angelique Coetzee told Reuters about the symptoms of patients that are different from the delta variant although ‘very mild’ symptoms. 

She said, “Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms.” According to Dr Angelique Coetzee symptoms were: fatigue, body aches, headaches, and mild sore throat. There was no problem with cough or taste odour. 

What about vaccines?

On December 22, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Gebreysus said that the blanket booster programmes are likely to prolong the pandemic, rather than ending it, by diverting supply to countries that already have high levels of vaccination coverage, giving the virus more opportunity to spread and mutate.

He said, “It’s important to remember that the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths are in unvaccinated people, not un-boosted people. And we must be very clear that the vaccines we have remain effective against both the Delta and Omicron variants.”

Dr Tedros suggested that the global priority must be to support all countries to reach the 40% target as quickly as possible, and the 70% target by the middle of 2022.

What is Bangladesh doing?

The Department of Health has issued 15 guidelines to prevent the new variant of Corona in Bangladesh.

On Sunday November 28, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) of the Government of Bangladesh has made a public circular signed by the Disease Control and Line Director Nazmul Islam.

No week-long lockdown across Bangladesh, viral video is from April

Summarising the instructions,  passengers from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho and other affected countries, as announced by the World Health Organization, need to undergo screening at ports; ban on public gatherings including social, political, and religious; stringent enforcement of health safety guidelines including wearing the mask, maintain social distance; 14 days quarantine for people travelling from affected countries; isolation of people with suspected coronavirus infection, positive cases and tracing and testing of close contacts, limiting dining capacity at restaurants, limiting people’s gathering including tourist spots, recreation centres, resorts, community centres, cinema halls, theatres and social programmes. 

The vaccination programme will continue and health COVID appropriate behaviour to be followed at educational institutions, public transport, offices, hospitals. Wearing face masks to be mandatory besides other health rules. 

An awareness campaign on coronavirus at the community level to prevent and control the spread of the new variant. 

On December 2, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that the educational institutions will be closed again if the pandemic worsens. 

The 15 instructions by the DGHS:
1. Passengers from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho and other affected countries, as announced by the World Health Organization from time to time, need to strengthen health checks and screening at ports.
2. All kinds of (social/political/religious/other) public gatherings should be discouraged.
3. If necessary, when going outside, everyone should always make sure to follow all the health safety guidelines, including covering the nose and face properly and wearing a mask.
4. Restaurant seating arrangements should be half or less of the capacity.
5. All types of public gatherings, tourist spots, recreation centres, resorts, community centres, cinema halls/theatre halls and social events (weddings, weddings, birthdays, picnics, parties, etc.) can be attended by half or less of the capacity.
6. Health safety guidelines should be ensured in all places of worship including mosques.
7. Health safety guidelines must be ensured in public transport.
8. Passengers arriving from affected countries must ensure 14 days quarantine.
9. Hygiene should be ensured in all educational institutions (all madrasas, pre-primary, primary, secondary, higher secondary, including educational institutions, universities) and coaching centres.
10. In all health care institutions, service recipients, service providers and health workers must always ensure proper adherence to all health rules, including covering their noses and faces and wearing masks.
11. Vaccination activities should be conducted in compliance with hygiene rules.
12. Isolation of corona patients with corona symptoms and quarantine of others who come in close contact with corona positive patients should be ensured.
13. A person with symptoms of Covid-19 may be assisted in isolation and coordination with local authorities for testing.
14. Make sure to cover your nose and face and wear a mask during office entry and stay. Hygiene compliance must be officially confirmed.
15. In order to control and reduce the incidence of COVID-19, miking and campaigns can be carried out at the community level to create awareness about hygiene compliance including wearing masks. In this case, mosque/temple/church/pagoda mic can be used if required and elected public representatives including members of ward councillor/union council can be involved.

As of January 12, 2022, Bangladesh has reported a total of 33 Omicron cases. Besides, Bangladesh government has imposed various restrictions from January 13, 2022 as the rate of COVID-19 increased along with the Omicron.

Our Sources:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/2021/12/01/1059835937/omicron-us-first-case

BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-59418127

WHO Official Twitter: https://twitter.com/WHO/status/1466062775327674371?s=20

WHO Official Twitter: https://twitter.com/WHO/status/1466376465990180864?s=20

WHO: https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron

WHO: https://www.who.int/news/item/26-11-2021-classification-of-omicron-(b.1.1.529)-sars-cov-2-variant-of-concern

WHO weekly report: https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/weekly-epidemiological-update-on-covid-19—21-december-2021

Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/safrican-doctor-says-patients-with-omicron-variant-have-very-mild-symptoms-2021-11-28/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-59468155

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros briefing: https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—22-december-2021

Prothom Alo: https://www.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/coronavirus/%E0%A6%93%E0%A6%AE%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%95%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0%E0%A6%A8-%E0%A6%A0%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%95%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%87-%E0%A6%B8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AC%E0%A6%BE%E0%A6%B8%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A5%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%AF-%E0%A6%85%E0%A6%A7%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%A6%E0%A6%AA%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A4%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%B0-%E0%A7%A7%E0%A7%AB-%E0%A6%A6%E0%A6%AB%E0%A6%BE-%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%B0%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%A6%E0%A7%87%E0%A6%B6%E0%A6%A8%E0%A6%BE

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2021/12/02/omicron-schools-will-be-closed-again-if-pandemic-worsens-says-education-minister

DGHS Official Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/dghsbd/photos/pcb.4149283978505934/4149281075172891/

Covid19 Dashboard Bangladesh: http://103.247.238.92/webportal/pages/covid19.php

Dhaka Tribune: https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/2022/01/12/3-new-omicron-cases-reported-in-jessore

BBC News Bangla: https://www.facebook.com/BBCBengaliService/photos/4991032564268942

Daily Star: https://www.thedailystar.net/health/disease/coronavirus/events-who/deaths-infections/news/covid-spike-continues-12-deaths-3359-cases-24hrs-2938451


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