Published on : Wednesday, December 1, 2021
As soon as South Africa announced the spread of a new and troubling variant last week, scientists went to work.
By the time the World Health Organization had named the new lineage Omicron, multiple teams of researchers had already duplicated the work of the laboratories in Durban and elsewhere, and mapped out the genetic changes that made Omicron the new bad actor of the coronavirus family.
Although many of those mutations were familiar from other variants, scientists still were not sure whether they make Omicron substantially different from previous variants- especially the super-dominant Delta variant.
It will take weeks of testing to tell what added superpowers, if any, these mutations give Omicron.
Researchers will look at what’s happening in the real world by testing samples taken from patients, sequencing their genomes to see if it’s Omicron causing the infections, and looking to see if more and more samples turn out to be Omicron.
They’ll also watch to see if Omicron infections lead to more severe disease and if fully vaccinated people end up more likely to become infected with Omicron variants as opposed to other strains.
That kind of in-real-life testing can take months.
AstraZeneca is also already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini, that will enable us to collect real world data of Vaxzevria against this new virus variant, a spokesperson for the vaccine maker said Friday.
Vaccine makers are turning to what’s become a go-to technique throughout the pandemic, pulling blood from vaccinated volunteers and people who have recovered from recent infections and mixing it with samples of the new variant or a lab-engineered version called a pseudovirus to see how immune cells and proteins work against it.
Blood serum contains the antibodies and the B cells and T cells that do the hard work of the body’s immune system.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson all say they’re starting these experiments.
The company is testing blood serum from participants in completed and ongoing booster studies to look for neutralizing activity against the Omicron variant, Johnson & Johnson said in a statement Monday.
This approach has been used to demonstrate first that vaccines were likely to work to protect people against infection, then to show they worked to protect people against the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants, and, finally, to provide the first evidence of waning immunity.
Such lab-dish techniques, combined with real-life evidence, form the basis of decision making on vaccine authorizations, approvals and guidance on their use.
And they’ll be used to inform the world about the risks of Omicron.
According to National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, there’s two ways we’re going to figure this out.
World Health Organization COVID-19 Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove told that it will take some time to “grow up the stock” of the virus to do that.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, outlined the two approaches Tuesday.
One of the things you do is you get the virus and you grow it or you put it into a modified form called a pseudovirus.
And when you do that, you can then get convalescent plasma, monoclonal antibodies, as well as sera and antibodies that are induced by the vaccine to see if they neutralize the virus, he told a White House coronavirus briefing.
Convalescent plasma comes from people who have been infected and recovered.
Impact on aviation industry
Airline bosses voiced concern on Tuesday that travel restrictions linked to the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus risked blowing an industry recovery off course.
The strongest warning came from Emirates Airline President Tim Clark who said a major hit to the peak December travel season would cause “significant traumas” in the global aviation business.
British budget airline easyJet also spoke of a softening in demand in recent weeks as the resurgence of the virus in parts of continental Europe prompted customers to rethink city break plans.