Why the new COVID-19 variant Omicron has scientists on alert. And how Canada responds to it – .

Why the new COVID-19 variant Omicron has scientists on alert. And how Canada responds to it – .

The Omicron COVID-19 variant has not yet been spotted in Canada, but it could appear in genomic surveillance conducted by provincial and regional public health laboratories.ANDREW BOYERS/Reuters

Almost a year after the emergence of the first variants of the coronavirus rewrote the rules for handling the pandemic, scientists around the world are sounding the alarm bells on what appears to be another disturbing development. A key question for Canada is whether the strategies that scientists have developed over the past year to cope with such a moment will be sufficient to guide the public health response.

The World Health Organization said on Friday that the Omicron variant, previously known by its lineage designation, B.1.1.529, was a variant of concern. It was reported this week in several places in Africa, where it has been linked to a sharp rise in the number of infections. According to the WHO, its first known appearance was in a sample collected on November 9. And while the full significance of the variant is still being evaluated in laboratory and epidemiological studies, what is known so far has given experts plenty of cause for concern. .

Chief among them is the number of genetic mutations – 32 – that it presents on its spike protein. The peak is the coronavirus’ calling card, which it uses to enter host cells. Since all approved COVID-19 vaccines are designed to target the peak, the large number of changes in Omicron means that it is less likely to be intercepted by antibodies generated by the vaccination.

“We know for a fact that this variant will be more difficult to neutralize,” said Marc-André Langlois, molecular virologist at the University of Ottawa who heads the Coronavirus Variant Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net).

The network was launched earlier this year to coordinate Canadian expertise and conduct research into the continuing evolution of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dr Langlois said the network started rallying earlier this week as news of the variant began to circulate among global health experts. On Friday, he and other academic researchers who track the worrying variants were locked into meetings with government officials anxious to assess how Canada might be affected.

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Although the variant has not yet been identified in Canada, it could appear as part of genomic surveillance conducted by provincial and regional public health laboratories. Surveillance requires sequencing and analysis of viral RNA extracted from positive COVID-19 cases in order to obtain the precise lineage of the virus causing each infection.

Janet Wong, spokesperson for Public Health Ontario, said all COVID-19 samples submitted to the province this month and related to international travel will be screened for signs of Omicron. The new variant is detectable because it has a mutation which also occurs in the Alpha variant.

Starting Dec. 1, Ontario plans to resume routine testing for variants of concern – something it had recently stopped because the Delta variant currently accounts for over 99% of all COVID-19 cases, Ms. Wong.

A spokesperson for the BC Center for Disease Control said the center will continue with its current strategy of sequencing all positive samples from returning travelers, pooled and epidemic cases, hospital cases, vaccine-ruptured infections, long-term care cases and possible re-infections.

Concern among health officials is that Omicron will prove to be significantly more transmissible than Delta – a prospect that is indicated by initial data from Africa and elsewhere. Earlier this year, Delta’s higher transmission rate allowed it to outperform and eliminate nearly all other forms of coronavirus in Canada. During the summer and early fall, it devastated the remaining unvaccinated population and likely contributed to an increase in the number of cases among those vaccinated.

Dr Langlois said that although no lab in Canada has yet had access to samples of Omicron, its spike protein can be synthesized based on genetic data.

One of the tools the network has put in place this year is a biobank of blood samples containing antibodies from vaccinated Canadians, as well as from people who have contracted COVID-19. In the coming days, studies are planned to assess the performance of antibodies against Omicron.

Antibodies are only part of the body’s complete immune response to the virus. Even if the new variant turns out to be better able to evade vaccines, it is not yet clear whether this will increase its ability to cause more serious illness.

However, the degree to which Omicron differs genetically from other variants of concern has led to a more serious and rapid response than any other variant to date.

“It’s an astonishing number of mutations,” said Jeffrey Joy, a researcher specializing in evolutionary genomics at the University of British Columbia.

Dr Joy said some of the changes in Omicron are already known from previous studies to worsen the impact of COVID-19. In addition to mutations in the spike protein, the variant has differences in its core proteins which are known from previous variants to improve the ability of the virus to enter and replicate in host cells.

German vaccine maker BioNTech said on Friday that, if needed, it could ship a new Omicron-specific version of the vaccine it has partnered with Pfizer to develop in about 100 days. Meanwhile, U.S. vaccine maker Moderna has said it will also create an Omicron vaccine candidate while, in parallel, continuing work on two booster vaccine candidates designed to thwart a range of variants.

Zhou Xing, a vaccine researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., Said the latter strategy would likely be more effective in the long term. He added that next-generation COVID-19 vaccines should target parts of the virus “that are much less prone to genetic mutations.”

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