Corona pandemic – the new virus variant Omikron (B.1.1.529) at a glance

The mutant B.1.1.529, which was first detected in South Africa, has now also appeared in Asia and Europe (imago / Hans Lucas)
A new coronavirus variant has been documented with Omikron since November 23, 2021: South African scientists found variant B.1.1.529 in samples from mid-November. The World Health Organization classifies them as “worrying”.

A few days later, the first Omicron cases were also in Germany registered. Bavaria reports two confirmed cases and one suspected case of the mutation, Hesse one confirmed case and North Rhine-Westphalia two suspected cases (as of November 29, 2021). In all cases it was about people who had entered Germany from South Africa.

Cases in neighboring German countries, entry restrictions for virus variant areas

Suspected cases and infections with B.1.1.529 were also reported in Botswana, a neighboring country to South Africa, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Israel, Denmark, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands and Italy.

Due to concerns about the further spread of the new Omikron variant of the coronavirus, entry from eight countries in southern Africa to Germany has been severely restricted since November 28, 2021. The federal government classified South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Eswatini, Malawi and Lesotho as virus variant areas.

No serious symptoms so far

Omikron shows an extraordinarily high number of mutations, namely 50 compared to the original SARS-CoV-2. It is believed that some of these mutations cause the virus to spread even better than the Delta variant that is currently prevalent. Other mutations could make the current vaccines work worse. However, there is still no reliable knowledge about this, not even about possible more severe disease courses due to the new variant.

What is considered certain: variant B.1.1.529 is evidently easy to recognize with PCR tests – on the basis of a specific change known as “S-gene failure”.

Some of the mutations in the new variant are known, such as the N501Y mutation. It means that the virus can spread faster. According to initial findings, South African scientists assume an increased transferability of Omikron. The daily infection rate in South Africa had almost doubled recently. Some local researchers attribute this to the new variant, but the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases does not.

There are also several indications for the modeler Viola Priesemann that Omikron is significantly more contagious than the delta variant of the coronavirus. The number of cases in South Africa was therefore very low, but has now increased surprisingly quickly in a short time. A chance outbreak is not very likely: “What we see indicates a stronger infection,” said Priesemann in the Dlf. She also referred to a case in Hong Kong, where a person infected with the new variant in a quarantine hotel infected another person in a room across the street, “possibly purely through the hallway and air exchange”.

“You can delay the spread of the new virus variant”

On November 26th, the virologist Martin Stürmer warned in the Dlf against “falling into alarmism too early and badmouthing everything”. We still know very, very little about the extent to which the mutant is really more contagious and whether the vaccine actually works worse. “This is all preliminary and there are still no laboratory confirmations,” said the head of a medical laboratory and lecturer in virology at the University of Frankfurt.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also sees many questions unanswered. It will take a few weeks to assess whether the new variant is really more aggressive or more dangerous.

According to the WHO, it will probably only be possible to make reliable statements on this in a few weeks. Viola Priesemann, model maker at the Max Planck Institute, emphasized that nothing was known about more difficult processes. In the Dlf interview, however, she pointed out that with the previous variants, Alpha and Delta, the higher probability of infection was also associated with somewhat more severe disease courses.

The spike protein of the new variant has 32 mutations compared to the wild type. With the help of these proteins, the virus docks to the human cell membrane and gets inside the cell. Most vaccinations start with the spike protein: the immune system should recognize this. However, if it no longer recognizes the virus so well due to the mutations in the spike protein, it can no longer bind antibodies to the spike protein as well and thus prevent the virus from entering the body’s cells. Scientists fear that the current vaccines would then no longer provide such good protection.

Several governments have expressed concern. The news agency dpa quotes from an internal situation report of the federal government, according to which the mutation profile is “conspicuous” and indicates that “a reduced vaccine effect must at least be seriously considered”. But that is not yet certain.

SPD health policymaker Karl Lauterbach tweeted on November 26th that a breakthrough against boosters was “unlikely”.

Nobody can say what’s in store for us at the moment, he said Virologe Christian Drosten im ZDF (11/28). The only thing you can say for sure is that you are better vaccinated and even better boosted. There is concern that one is dealing with a real “Immunescape variant”. The next two to three weeks would show whether vaccinations would have to be changed, continued Drosten. Adapting the mRNA vaccines is technically relatively easy. But we’re talking about months here.

The virologist Martin Stürmer has great hopes for the mRNA vaccines from Biontech / Pfizer and Moderna. Their technology makes it possible to react relatively quickly to new variants: “In principle, you then have to reconfigure the mRNA, respond to these changes and then produce the vaccine again and, in a certain way, allow it again,” said Stürmer in the Dlf. “Then it should be possible relatively quickly that we can get an adapted vaccine if it is necessary.”

Virologist Martin Stürmer on B.1.1.529 (11/26/2021)

The Mainz vaccine manufacturer Biontech announced on November 26th that it was already researching the new variant and was expecting findings in two weeks at the latest: “We can understand the concerns of experts and have immediately initiated investigations into variant B.1.1.529.” At the end of the ongoing tests it will be known whether the vaccine needs to be adjusted. According to its own information, Biontech has been taking precautions together with its US partner Pfizer for months to adapt the vaccine within six weeks in the event of a so-called escape variant of the virus and to deliver the first batches within 100 days.

The vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca also announced that it is investigating the effectiveness of its vaccine against the variant and is collecting data in Botswana and Eswatini.

“Omikron as a whole – and this is interesting – is not related to any of the currently circulating variants,” said Richard Neher, head of the research group “Evolution of Viruses and Bacteria” at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, on Deutschlandfunk.

It is unclear whether Omikron, for example, arose in a chronically infected patient or arose in a country without any monitoring of the infection process. Skipping from animals to humans is also conceivable. Neher: “South Africa discovered this variant early with an excellent monitoring and sequencing system – but we cannot say whether it originated in South Africa or in other countries.” With a view to the numerous changes to the spike protein of the new variant, Neher said that antibodies sometimes no longer “bind” successfully, that is, they can only do their work to a limited extent. “But the spike protein is a big protein. Not every mutation completely prevents the antibody binding. ”Nevertheless, according to Neher, it can be assumed that the immune protection of convalescent or vaccinated persons is significantly reduced with the Omikron variant.

Many countries have announced and in some cases have already imposed restrictions on travel to South Africa and other countries in southern Africa, including Germany. From November 27, 2021, only Germans from South Africa should be allowed to enter the Federal Republic.

South Africa’s Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla, criticized the reaction of several states as “unjustified”. The WHO warned the countries of the world against hasty travel restrictions. Much is not yet known.

In the Dlf, however, the modeler Viola Priesemann emphasized the importance of a quick reaction: “It makes a big difference whether we start with 100 cases in Germany or Europe or with 10,000 that we bring in.” The ascent at the beginning must be as slow as possible. If you contain the introduction and delay the spread, you will gain a few weeks in which you can develop and distribute a vaccine if necessary. That is why she advocated entry restrictions and quarantine requirements for those returning from South Africa.

When viruses multiply, mutations occur, copying errors in the genome, so to speak. If these give the virus an advantage, for example if they help it to spread faster, the copying error will also reproduce and under certain circumstances will prevail as dominant. B.1.1.529 shows a particularly high number of mutations. One explanation for this is that they could have originated in a single person in whom the virus was able to survive for a long period of time, for example in a patient with a weakened immune system.

Sources: Christina Sartori, agency material, fmay, nin, ikl

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