When her crystal ball raised the volume of the humming sound, Verum strode towards her corner and focused on the news. With wide eyes, Verum announced, “Mysticals, scientists in South Africa have identified a new Covid-19 variant! It has been named ‘Omicron’ and has a large number of mutations! The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as a ‘variant of concern’.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” said Orak. Worry clouded over his face.
“How was it discovered?” said Scorch.
“In the past few weeks, Pretoria in South Africa as well as Tshwane, the nearby metropolitan area, have seen a surge in the number of Covid-19 cases,” said Verum, “Student gatherings were supposed to be the cause behind this. But as the cases rose, the scientists studied the genome sequencing.”
“What is genome sequencing?” said Felix.
“ Viruses like the coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2 don’t remain the same. They constantly change as they are transmitted from person to person. Most of these changes don’t amount to much. But sometimes, a major mutation can happen that changes the way the virus behaves,” said Orak.
“So, scientists study samples taken from people who have tested positive. They crack open the virus’s code and study it to understand if it has changed and in what way.” added Verum, “That’s how B.1.1.529, the new variant was discovered.”
“Okay, understood,” said Scorch, “But what has changed?”
“Coronaviruses like Covid-19 have peculiar structures called spike proteins on their surface. These spike proteins play an important role in transmitting the infection. It clings to the cells (the smallest units of an organism) the virus wants to infect,” said Verum, “The Omicron variant has 32 mutations in the spike protein region. This high number of mutations can have two effects: either it will be difficult for the virus to infect cells and spread or it may evade the body’s immune response.”
“That is, the body’s reaction to protect the body from any foreign substance invasion,” explained Orak, “This means the variant might spread more easily.”
“Scientists think that is the case. Within two weeks, Omicron has become the dominant strain in South Africa. That is, it has infected a greater number of people,” said Verum, “Worried, many countries have stopped flights to South Africa.”