COVID strains (Image from WHO website)

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Vishal Mishra went to the U.S. in early 2019 to complete his higher education in Texas. Soon after, he met the love of his life and they started dating. Six months later, Vishal promised Prerna they would get married, but only after he got a job. 

It has been nine months since Vishal got the job amid the COVID-19 pandemic. After some initial hesitation, he convinced his parents back home to have a wedding scheduled for December 18th. At the end of November, Vishal and Jyoti were packing their bags to fly to India, when both were made privy to the fact that their flight to Delhi was canceled when India decided to restrict travel from ‘at risk’ countries that may have cases of Omicron.  

Back in India, the government made large quantities of vaccines to combat the earlier variants — Alpha, Beta, and Delta — the first Omicron cases were reported from Karnataka. One person traveled from South Africa and was tested positive on arrival, while the second person is a doctor with no travel history. Both the cases triggered panic in the country. Now, Gujarat and Maharashtra have reported Omicron positive cases and all the patients have traveled from South Africa.

Detected in South Africa and reported on November 24, 2021, the Omicron variant has sparked widespread concern as it is believed to have over 30 mutations in the spike protein region. Mutations at the spike protein region make the variant of the virus potential to develop an immune escape mechanism. 

The strain has been marked as a Variant of Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 26, 2021.

What is a Variant of Concern?

A strain of virus is tagged as a Variant of Concern if there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease, increased hospitalizations or deaths, significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.

The US has reported at least 10 confirmed cases of Omicron variant and the patient detected in Hawaii had no recent travel history. With an aim of not seeing a repeat, U.S. President Joe Biden has announced stricter travel rules. From Monday (December 6), international passengers arriving in the U.S., including Americans, will have to take a mandatory COVID-19 test no more than one day old before travel. Those who have recently recouped from the infection will have to furnish “proof of recovery” documents. For the betterment of the people, the U.S. government has also extended compulsory wearing of face masks on planes, trains, and buses until mid-March.

Rohan Jaiswal, who is new to the US and renting a small apartment in California owned by an elderly American couple, is unhappy with no end of the pandemic in sight. He was planning to celebrate Christmas and the New Year 2022.

“I could not celebrate Christmas here last year due to COVID-19. With the situation gradually getting back to normal, I was happy that this year I will finally be able to get the right feeling of Christmas in the U.S., but with the advent of Omicron, my dream has been dashed again. I will have to be indoors, avoid social gatherings, meetings, and parties,” Rohan said. 

How the Omicron variant got its name

The WHO has promoted the naming system and made it is accessible, as the scientific names of viruses and their variants are often difficult to remember and lead to misreporting. The new variant has been named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. However, in naming the new COVID-19 variant Omicron, the health body has skipped the letter ‘Xi’ and ‘Nu’ the 13th and 14th letters in the Greek alphabet. 

The previous variant B.1.617.2 was named after the fourth letter of Greek alphabet – Delta. There are currently seven “variants of concern” or “variants of concern” and each of them has a Greek letter. In naming the new variant, the WHO has skipped two Greek letters – Nu and Xi – as “Xi” happens to be a popular surname in China and is also the surname of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“NU” was not considered to name the new variant as it may confuse people with the English word “new”, Tarik Jasarevis, a spokesperson of WHO, said, adding that WHO’s best practices for naming diseases suggest avoiding “offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”

The WHO has warned that the Omicron variant could become dominant because it is highly transmissible, but it may be likely that there won’t be a need for a different vaccine for it. Chief Scientist with the WHO, Soumya Swaminathan, said, “The fact that [people] not getting extremely sick…means the vaccines are still providing protection and we would hope that they would continue to provide protection.”

She also said that there is a possibility that people may be required to initially take an extra dose of vaccine to boost immune response. The health organization has also said that in vaccinated people, COVID-19 cases and infections are expected, albeit in a small and predictable proportion.

Omicron has been detected in at least 38 countries but there are no reported deaths so far from the new COVID-19 variant. Soumya Swaminathan has, meanwhile, urged people not to panic over the emergence of Omicron. She said the world is in a different situation than a year ago.

“The emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, but the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the pandemic,” she added.


Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader, and film buff. His interests lie in making the world a better place through the power of the written word.