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Omicron tracker: AstraZeneca works on specific vaccine; WHO says variant in 106 countries

The newly-discovered fast-spreading Omicron variant has been behind the rapid surge in cases in Europe, Africa and the United States in the last one month. The variant has now spread to 106 countries, WHO reported.

Written by Amitabh Sinha , Edited by Explained Desk | Pune |
Updated: December 22, 2021 10:26:29 pm
A Coronavirus test centre employee waits for clients on a famous shopping road in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

As new coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly in many parts of the world, pharmaceutical major AstraZeneca said it had begun work on developing an Omicron-specific vaccine.

“Together with Oxford University, we have taken preliminary steps in producing an Omicron variant vaccine, in case it is needed and will be informed by emerging data,” the company said in a statement.

The newly-discovered fast-spreading variant has been behind the rapid surge in cases in Europe, Africa and the United States in the last one month. The variant has now spread to 106 countries, World Health Organization (WHO) reported.

In the week between December 13 and 19, more than 41.77 lakh new cases were detected across the world, of which over 26.11 lakh, or 63 per cent, came from Europe, the WHO said in its weekly report. Though most of the new cases, especially in Europe, are believed to be caused by the Omicron variant, the WHO said Delta continued to be the dominant variant of concern globally.

Of the over 10.51 lakh genome sequences done between October 20 and December 19 across the world, close to 10.1 lakh, or about 96 per cent, were found to be that of the Delta variant, and only about 17.000 (less than 2 per cent) were that of Omicron. The WHO numbers was based on the sequences deposited in the public databases like GISAID.

Individual countries have confirmed many more Omicron cases. The United Kingdom, for example, has reported more than 45,000 confirmed cases of Omicron infection till now. Not all the genome sequences are immediately deposited in the global public databases.

But WHO said the Delta variant had not completely gone away. “Following the classification of Omicron as a variant of concern, many countries have adopted targeted sequencing strategies to detect the variant. The change in sampling strategy, away from community-based surveillance sequencing, may result in biases in the proportions of variants being reported. Thus, the recent declines in the proportion of Delta variant reported by some countries may reflect changes in sampling strategy, rather than declines in the proportion of Delta variant cases among all Covid-19 cases,” it said.

It said the overall risk related to the Omicron variant remained “very high”.

“Recent evidence indicates that Omicron variant has a growth advantage over the Delta variant and is spreading rapidly… It remains uncertain to what extent the observed rapid growth rate can be attributed to immune evasion, intrinsic increased transmissibility, or a combination of both. There are still limited data on the clinical severity of Omicron. Hospitalisations in the UK and South Africa continue to rise, and given rapidly increasing case numbers, it is possible that healthcare systems may become overwhelmed,” it said.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden said the country was ordering 500 million rapid diagnostic tests that can be used at home to detect the presence of Covid-19. These tests would be distributed free of cost to anyone who requests them. In an address to the nation on Tuesday evening, Biden also announced plans to deploy 1,000 medical personnel from the military to help in the management of the surging Covid-19 cases across the country. New testing and vaccination sites are also being set up.

The US has been reporting over one lakh new cases a day. According to Washington Post, the seven-day average of new cases touched 1.31 lakh on Monday. That would mean that the US already has over six lakh infections of the Omicron variant in the population.

In its new assessment of the spread of the Omicron variant, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that up to 73 per cent of all cases detected between December 12 and 18 could be because of this variant. The percentage could be even higher, over 90 per cent, in New York and some other regions, according to a report by The Associated Press.

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