(CNN)Omicron, the newest coronavirus variant, is also the quickest to be labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization because of its seemingly fast spread in South Africa and its many troubling mutations.Its emergence has already led to travel restrictions, high-level government meetings and promises by vaccine makers to start working on strain-specific vaccines just in case.But it has a long way to go to take over from Delta, the variant that dominates all over the world. And the long list of variants that at first frightened the world before falling off the map can be a reminder that viruses are unpredictable.
Variants of concern
WHO designates coronavirus variants as either variants of concern — meaning they look dangerous enough to bear close scrutiny and continual updates — or as variants of interest, or variants under monitoring. Only five currently meet the definition for variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron.
The first sample of the Omicron or B.1.1.529 lineage was taken November 9, according to WHO. It got noticed because of a surge of cases in South Africa.”This new variant, B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick!” Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response & Innovation, and a genetics researcher at Stellenbosch University, said on Twitter.Also, genetic sequencing showed it carried a large number of troubling mutations on the spike protein — the knoblike structure on the surface of the virus that it uses to grapple onto the cells it infects.