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MaltaToday 1 December 2021 MIDWEEK

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2 NEWS maltatoday | WEDNESDAY • 1 DECEMBER 2021 2 NEWS COVID-19 THE Omicron variant is the latest strain of the coronavirus to be detected and has been designated as a 'variant of con- cern' by the World Health Organisation (WHO). While countries worldwide continue to report cases, scientists are still trying to determine whether the current vac- cines are effective against it. This is a guide on what we know so far about this heavily-mutated virus. Where did Omicron originate from? The South African authorities first reported the Omicron variant to the WHO on 24 November following an in- crease in cases in the Gauteng province. The first known and confirmed infec- tion with Omicron was from a sample taken on 9 November, and since then, the number of Omicron cases has con- tinued to rise. However, although the variant was found in South Africa, it is unclear what country it emerged from. Many countries, including Malta, have put travel bans South Africa and its neighbouring countries as a result. Where has Omicron been detected so far? As of last week, there have been at least 22 confirmed positive cases in South Af- rica. On Sunday, the Dutch authorities confirmed that at least 13 people who arrived on flights from South Africa had tested positive for the Omicron variant. In Portugal, 13 members of a football team tested positive for the variant on Monday. There have also been six cases in Scotland and three cases across the rest of the UK. The Omicron variant has also been de- tected in travellers returning from African countries to Hong Kong, Belgium and Is- rael, and in European countries including Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic. What makes Omicron of concern? It is the number of mutations the virus has that makes it a matter of concern. The Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations in the genes that code for the spike protein. According to The Guard- ian, of these mutations, 10 are in the "receptor binding domain," or the part of the spike protein that latches onto human cells. "The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high," the WHO said. What is the severity of the Omicron variant? Early evidence suggests hospitalisa- tion rates are increasing in South Afri- ca. However, the WHO said this might be due to rising numbers overall rather than the Omicron variant. Only about 24% of South Africa's popula- tion is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, only about 6% of the popu- lation of South Africa is older than the age 65. So it's unclear whether the var- iant will cause more severe disease in those who are at increased risk, such as older people. What are the symptoms? A BBC interview with Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of the South African Medical As- sociation, said that the patients she's seen so far with the new variant have had "extremely mild" symptoms. It is also not clear if the Omicron spreads more easily from person to per- son. However, the number of people in South Africa who have been testing positive for COVID-19 has increased in areas battling Omicron. How effective are current COVID vac- cines? Experts say that while vaccines may be less effective against Omicron than pre- vious variants, they will probably still confer some protection. Most COVID-19 vaccines prime the immune system specifically against the spike protein. Because Omicron has many mutations in the spike protein, experts are worried that current vac- cines may be less effective at training the immune system to recognise it. Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer-BioN- tech and Moderna have said they re- quire more information to determine the effectiveness of their vaccines against Omicron. It would take less than 100 days for these manufacturers to al- ter their vaccines to be able to counter any new variant. What do we know about the Omicron COVID-19 variant so far? New cases rise to 106, two in ITU as hospitalisations stable NEW cases of COVID-19 in Malta continued to surge as 106 infections were detected over the past 24 hours, according to data released on Tuesday. Figures released by the Health Ministry show that active cases now stand at 1,188 after 54 re- coveries were registered. No new deaths were regis- tered. Since the start of the pandemic, 468 have died with COVID. There are currently 12 coro- navirus patients being cared for at Mater Dei Hospital, of which two are in the ITU. This represents a drop of three patients requiring hospi- tal care. Until yesterday, 120,528 vac- cine booster doses were admin- istered. Malta is experiecing a surge in coronavirus cases in line with what is happening across several European countries, however, hospitalisations have remained relatively stable. No cases of the new Omicron variant have yet been flagged by the Maltese health authorities.

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