By Elizabeth Sitotombe

ANOTHER year in and the pandemic is still with us.  

Since March 2020, our lives have been unpleasant.  

Death became a constant unwanted visitor, as every time a new COVID-19 variant emerged. 

The latest variant, which has overtaken delta to become the dominant strain of the virus, is omicron.  

It was discovered in South Africa recently but millions of people have been infected since then.

In Zimbabwe, the Fourth Wave, triggered by the omicron variant, saw the country recording a steep increase in confirmed cases in a very short period.

The omicron wave moved at alarming speed, slipping past protection of vaccinations and immunity from previous infections. 

It is, however, causing milder illness than earlier strains. 

Indeed, some good news packaged in bad news! 

According to the South African Medical Research Council website, 4,5 percent of patients with COVID-19 died during their hospital stay in the current wave compared to an average of 21 percent in earlier waves. 

Fewer people were admitted to intensive care units and hospital stays were significantly shorter.

Omicron has clearly ‘behaved’ differently from all previous variants. 

Could it be the signal we have all been waiting for that, COVID-19 is nearing its end?

Is it the beginning of the end?

Scientists believe a combination of high transmissibility and mild infection might signal the beginning of the end. 

Hopes are pinned on the belief that the highly transmissible but milder omicron variant will move the world towards herd immunity as more people will catch it at the same time. 

If enough people come down with the virus, we may have collective immunity to make person-to-person spread unlikely. 

If the virus cannot move from host to host, it will eventually become a rare occurrence, like measles only breaking out in small clusters from time-to-time.

According to a South African study done at the Steve Biko Academy, the omicron surge offers a tantalising hint that the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic may be ending. 

“The infection moved with unprecedented speed and caused much milder illness than earlier strains,” noted a statement from the academy. 

A study of patients infected with COVID-19 at a large hospital in South Africa where the first outbreak of the omicron variant was recorded showed if this pattern continues and is repeated globally, we are likely to see a complete decoupling of case and death rates that suggest “…omicron may be a harbinger of the end of the epidemic phase of the COVID-19 pandemic ushering in its endemic phase.” 

To be endemic means the virus will keep circulating in parts of the global population for years but its prevalence and impact will come down to relatively manageable levels.

Could omicron be the last variant of concern?

There is still a possibility that the virus could mutate further into a strain that causes more severe disease and more easily evades antibodies produced from prior infections or vaccinations.

It is possible a variant more deadly than omicron could rise before herd immunity is achieved. 

As it stands, new variants have been identified.

In France, a new COVID-19 variant named IHU or B.1.640.2 was recently discovered.  

The first reported case was found in a vaccinated man who had returned to France from a trip to Cameroon. Other cases were found in an area near Marseilles, a port city in Southern France with 12 people found to be infected.

Health officials in France found that IHU has 46 mutations, even more mutations than those found in omicron. 

Studies show that the new variant contains the N501Y mutation that is present in the gamma and beta variant. 

On January 8, scientists announced they had found a strain of COVID-19 infection made up of both the delta and omicron variants. 

A professor of biological sciences at the University of Cyprus and head of the Laboratory of Biotechnology and Molecular Virology, Leondios Kostrikis, said the strain dubbed ‘deltacron’ is a co-infection of the delta and omicron variants.

At least 25 samples of deltracon have been found in Cyprus, 11 of which were from patients already hospitalised with COVID-19 while 14 were from individuals among the general populace.

WHO has not labelled any of the new strains as either a variant under investigation or a variant of concern.

The WHO’s incident manager, Dr Abdi Mahamud, acknowledged the presence of the strain IHU but said it “… hasn’t been much of a threat.”

It is important that we do not panic over every variant discovered.

According to Dr Chimuka, a health practitioner, new variants keep emerging but it does not mean there will be more dangerous than previous strains.

He went on to add that vaccination is still the best protection that people should take against the virus. Vaccines offer strong protection even if they do not always prevent a mild infection.

Pandemics do come to an end; the 1918 influenza virus eventually transitioned into a seasonal flue. But until then, we should continue to practise caution and prevention protocols, like social/physical distancing, hand-washing, masking up and getting vaccinated.

Stay safe!

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