Variants, is the South African the most dangerous? Questions and answers

Variants, is the South African the most dangerous? Questions and answers
Variants, is the South African the most dangerous? Questions and answers

The Omicron variant has changed more than the others. But this does not mean that it escapes science, treatment, the vaccine. In a few days we will know better how much more contagious and aggressive it is. It has alarmed the world and apparently it looks like a kind of mix of the previous ones. If at the beginning it was Wuhan and China that told everyone about the harsh consequences of the Sars Cov-2 virus, this time the eyes are on South Africa. A bit like what happened with the Gamma when the spotlight turned on Brazil and with the Delta, when the focus was on India. Carlo Federico Perno, virologist and director of the Microbiology Unit of the Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome, is one of those who have seen and studied the virus. We ask him some of the questions about the new variant to which the scientific community is called upon to answer these days.

THE OMICRON VARIANT HAS THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF MUTATIONS: IS IT A CASE?

“The mutations in Omicron aren’t just on Spike but on other proteins as well. They are more in number than the other variants. It is interesting because they are similar to those already found in Beta, Delta and Gamma. In biology when we let the virus replicate in places where there are millions of people who are infected every day, it is normal for huge amounts of mutations to be generated. And this makes it more likely that they are similar to the others. Where there is a very low vaccination rate, the virus circulates more freely. Basically, these are the places where he can do what he wants. The message is that the whole world must be vaccinated: it is useless to think that in Italy we must reach 99% of the immunized when the other states of a globalized system do not have these same percentages. It is necessary to go on with the third doses, doing it with full force. But we must also bring the vaccines to the rest of the planet ».

IS THE OMICRON VARIANT MORE DANGEROUS?
“Each variant has mutations from the original strain and they don’t necessarily accumulate. The Alfa was different from the Beta, but the Delta was more like the Alpha and less like the Beta and the Gamma. However, an atypical variant does not mean more dangerous. In biology, two plus two is not four. A virus that is “dangerous enough” can interbreed with another “equally dangerous” and combine their mutations. But it doesn’t necessarily become “just as dangerous”. The real difference is made by the final structure: it may be, for example, that due to a paradoxical effect the mutations cancel each other out and become less evil. “Mutation plus mutation” may therefore not mean “more wickedness”. Today we have no evidence of the greater danger of the Omicron mutation of the Sars Cov-2 virus. However, we must be on guard: it is necessary to sequence and take the utmost care, keeping the attention on its evolution high “.

COULD IT ESCAPE THE VACCINE?
«The varied virus could escape the vaccine, just as it could not change anything. We do not yet know if this set of mutations will produce a negative effect on the coverage of the already planned immunization program ».

CAN DOING THE THIRD DOSE PROTECT US?
“If the variant still responds to the vaccine, even if it can do it a little less, thanks to the third dose we can protect ourselves. In the unfortunate hypothesis, quite unlikely but which cannot be excluded, that there is a variant that the vaccine does not see, the vaccination program must be redefined. But the coronavirus is not like the flu virus, it varies less ».

DID THE MUTATION START FROM SOUTH AFRICA?
“We don’t know exactly in which area of ​​southern Africa it spawned, but it certainly comes from there. There have been cases in Botswana, a country which, however, does not follow suit. Once again it is important to work with the global South to help them with vaccination programs. It is an operation that we do for others but also for ourselves ».

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO UNDERSTAND THE CONTAGIOUS AND SEVERITY OF THE VARIANT?
“It will take a few weeks to get details on the effects. But within a few days we will have a very reasonable overview of its contagiousness. We will see it thanks to the data from South Africa, where they are making a lot of sequences. And if there are many other cases in Europe, then unfortunately we could say that it has already arrived at us and that the oxen have escaped from the stable ».

COMPARED TO A YEAR AND A HALF AGO, ARE THE RISKS MORE OR LESS?
«We are playing a match, it’s a bit like the virus scored 4 goals in the first half. In the second, fresh forces came thanks to the vaccine and we scored 6 goals. Now, it seems incredible to say it but that’s it, we continue to win, but the virus could draw. That’s why we have to be careful ».

DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO CONTINUE TO WEAR THE MASK?
«The provisions on the mask are precautionary. They may seem unpleasant but they are reasonable. Where the virus circulates it is important that we protect ourselves ».

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