The World Health Organisation (WHO) had on November 26, 2021, designated the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus as a virus of concern.
This decision was based on the evidence that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, how easily it spreads or the severity of illness caused.
Given the above, the health organisation has recommended actions for countries to follow. This includes; reporting initial cases or clusters to WHO, performing field investigations and laboratory assessments to better understand if Omicron has different transmission or disease characteristics among others.
Although research is still ongoing about this new variant of coronavirus, below are things you should know about Omicron.
1. First detection: The earliest sample was detected on November 11, 2021, in Botswana.
2. Transmissibility: It is unclear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of Southern Africa affected by this variant. Epidemiologic studies are however underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
3. Severity: It is also unclear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, such as Delta.
Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to the rise in numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron.
There is also no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.
4. Effectiveness of vaccines: WHO is currently collaborating with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines.
Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating Delta variant. Current vaccines however remain effective against severe disease and death.
5. Effectiveness of current tests: The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as it has been seen with other variants as well.
More studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.
6. Effectiveness of current treatments: Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.
7. Studies underway: At present, WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron.
Researchers around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available.
8. Preventive measures: Getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, sanitizing your hands and maintaining social distance in a well-ventilated space are simple preventive measures that everyone should take.
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