Vigilance of junior scientist led to discovery of Omicron variant

Vigilance of junior scientist led to discovery of Omicron variant

Dr Allison Glass said that it was the vigilance of a junior scientist that identified the new variant and that so far the symptoms they were seeing were mild.

A clinical virologist at the laboratory in South Africa where the Omicron variant was detected has said that it was the vigilance of a junior scientist that led to the discovery. 

Dr Allison Glass of the Lancet Laboratory in Johannesburg said that so far, the symptoms that they were seeing from the variant were mild.

Dr Glass explained that at the start of the month, Covid samples were coming up positive but the S gene wasn’t being detected - similar to the Alfa variant.

This raised questions as to whether Alfa was resurging or if it was something new.

It was monitored for a few days and the samples were sequenced, leading to the discovery of the Omicron variant.

"The symptoms were seeing are mild, currently. So very similar to what we've seen with other mild cases of Covid-19 from other variants," Dr Glass said. 

"We are starting to see some hospitalisations, but I think that's a factor of the number of cases that we're seeing. But as yet, there is no evidence to suggest that this variant causes more severe disease than previous variants."

She said that it is a little early to say how the new variant will react to the vaccine. Case of infection in people who have been vaccinated had been noted, but they had either no symptoms or mild ones.

"We are still feeling optimistic that as we see more cases coming through that the vaccine will continue to provide protection against disease and especially severe disease."

Upon realising that a new variant had been discovered, Dr Glass said the first thing that went through her mind was "there goes the quiet December that we were hoping for".

She said that a new variant raises concerns about whether the virus has found ways to evade immunity or vaccine-induced immunity. 

"We are watching to see what happens there". 


Speaking to RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Dr Glass also expressed disappointment that travel restrictions had been imposed on South Africa when the reality was that such information was important to plan for a possible surge, she said.

Dr Glass said that such information needed to be disclosed, but reactions, as had been seen in the past few days, could make the scientific community reluctant to be transparent “when there is this type of backlash”.

Many countries do not carry out genome sequencing and just because they were not aware did not mean there were no variants.

“It’s disappointing that we’re being punished for being on top of what’s happening,” Dr Glass said.

She said that it was a good thing for the rest of the world to be aware of what different countries are seeing, "because we know that these variants do travel very rapidly globally". 

As a virologist, Dr Glass said that she knew that the virus was going to continue to change. 

“That’s their nature – to evolve, it’s not unexpected.” 

She said it was good to be aware of what was happening and that knowledge was important for capacity planning, but it was early days.

“We shouldn’t jump to any conclusions.” 

Variants were a way of showing that the virus “will stick around,” but they should not cause panic, she urged.

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