THESE shocking images show how drastically mutated the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is.
Illustrations from the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) reveal the sheer number of changes on the virus’s genetic makeup.
Scientists have warned the Omicron variant has the most mutations they have ever seen.
Mutations are changes in the virus that may, or may not, give the virus extra abilities, such as to spread faster.
With so many mutations, it raises the possibilities that Omicron has a number of advantages above previous versions of Covid.
The most concerning is that it will weaken the efficacy of our vaccines, which scientists will not know for certain for another couple of weeks.
Experts fear it could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario, based on comparison with the Beta variant.
The COG-UK depictions of the variants show that Omicron has several-fold more mutations than Delta, Beta, Alpha and Gamma.
All are labelled as “Variants of Concern” (VOCs) under the World Health Organization because they are able to spread faster, increase disease severity or escape immunity.
Many of Omicron’s mutations cross over with those seen before in previous dangerous strains. However, some are novel.
Delta, which is still dominant in the UK and globally, is considered the “fittest version we have seen to date” of the coronavirus, said COG-UK’s director Professor Sharon Peacock.
But early evidence suggests that Omicron has already overthrown it in some parts of South Africa in a matter of days.
Cases are expected to keep popping up in the UK, with 32 identified as of yet in England and Scotland.
What are Omicron’s mutations?
Of the 50 or so mutations, 32 are in the spike gene, including what’s called the binding domain.
These are most likely to change how the virus interacts with the antibodies of the immune system, and how it enters human cells.
The spike protein is a vital part of the virus that allows it to latch onto cells.
It is also the target of Covid vaccines that were built against the original “Wuhan” strain of the coronavirus. Therefore, if the spike protein is drastically different, antibodies may fail to recognise Omicron.
Raquel Viana, Head of Science at one of South Africa’s biggest private testing labs, said she had “a sinking feeling” when she discovered the new strain while genetically testing positive swabs in the country.
She told Reuters: “I was quite shocked at what I was seeing. I questioned whether something had gone wrong in the process.”
Among Omicron’s mutations are P681H and N679K, which UCL’s Prof Francois Balloux said was “an exceptionally rare” combination.
It also carries K417N and E484A, which are the same as those in the Beta variant which has been shown in studies to weaken jab efficacy.
Prof Balloux said: “I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognised by neutralising antibodies relative to Alpha or Delta. It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage.”
But for now, there is no clear evidence of exactly how Omicron will change the Covid outbreak picture.
It’s so new – detected only last week – that scientists barely know anything about the real impact it will have on the course of the pandemic.
Despite the high degree of uncertainty, England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam told people not to panic.
“On the effects of the new variants, and how well vaccine effectiveness will hold up, here I want to be clear that this is not all doom and gloom at this stage,” he said.
“I do not want people to panic at this stage. If vaccine effectiveness is reduced, as seems pretty likely to some extent, the biggest effects are likely to be in preventing infections and, hopefully, there will be smaller effects on preventing severe disease.”
Prof Van-Tam said the booster campaign has “never been more vital than at this point in time”.
In an opinion piece for The Sun, he said getting your booster is the greatest Christmas gift you could give yourself and your family.
A top official at the World Health Organization said today that vaccines are still the best way to protect yourself from the coronavirus, amid the fears of Omicron.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead at the WHO, said: “Vaccines are saving lives.
“And we need vaccines to get into the arms of all of those who are at risk in every single country, not just in some countries, and not adding more vaccines to people who are already protected, but getting that first and second dose to those individuals who are at risk in all countries.
“And this is really important that this is crystal clear today because there is still a lot of uncertainty around Omicron, and this data will come in and there are scientists around the world that are studying this.”
We pay for your stories!
Do you have a story for The Sun news desk?