‘Get vaccinated’: Italian virologists urge caution over Omicron Covid variant

People queue for Covid testing at Rome's Fiumicino airport.
People queue for Covid testing at Rome's Fiumicino airport. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
High-profile health experts in Italy said the new Covid-19 variant is likely to be more contagious, but stressed that further studies are needed.

Italy has confirmed one case of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19, which was first detected in South Africa.

The UK, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and the Czech Republic have also reported cases of the variant. In the Netherlands, 13 travellers were found to be infected with Omicron.

READ ALSO: Italy bans arrivals from southern Africa over new Covid variant

Italian virologist Roberto Burioni said on Sunday night that that “there is a possibility that this new variant is more contagious but we cannot say so with absolute certainty.”.

“I understand that people are tired, that you want certain answers, but right now you have to be patient,” said Burioni. “We have no confirmed data, we have to wait to find out more in the next few weeks.”

“In this war we have a very effective weapon: let’s be careful and let’s get vaccinated,” he urged.

Franco Locatelli, the president of Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS) and the coordinator of the CTS panel of experts advising the government on health measures, said on Monday that, while the Omicron variant seems to be more contagious there is no evidence yet that that it is more dangerous.

Locatelli told SkyTG24 news that it would be “excessive” to say he was worried about the new strain.

“We know that this is a variant that has had a significant spread in South Africa,” he said. “The time it took to become predominant was much less with respect to other variants.”

“This all supports (the hypothesis) that it is more contagious. But we don’t have any evidence that it can provoke more serious illness or avoid the protective effect of vaccines in a major way”.

READ ALSO: Italy confirms first case of new Covid Omicron variant

Omicron has many more mutations than the Delta strain, according to a first “image” of this new variant initially detected in South Africa, produced and published by the Rome’s prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital.

On the three-dimensional “image”, which looks like a map, “we can clearly see that the Omicron variant presents many more mutations than the Delta variant, concentrated above all in one area of the protein that interacts with human cells”, the team of researchers said in a statement published on Sunday.

Photo: ANSA/AFP
 

“This does not automatically mean that these variations are more dangerous, just that the virus has further adapted to the human species by generating another variant,” the researchers said.

“Other studies will tell us if this adaptation is neutral, less dangerous or more dangerous,” they added.

The research team focused on the search for mutations in “the three-dimensional structure of the spike protein”, Claudia Alteri, professor of clinical microbiology at Milan State University and a researcher at Bambino Gesu, told AFP.

The image was produced “from the study of the sequences of this new variant made available to the scientific community” coming mainly “from Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong”.

“This image, which represents a map of all the variations, describes the mutations of Omicron but does not define its role,” she said. “It will now be important to define through laboratory experiments whether the combination of these mutations can have an impact on transmission or on the effectiveness of vaccines, for example,” she added.

The new Covid-19 Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk globally, the World Health Organization warned on Monday, stressing that uncertainties remained about how contagious and dangerous the strain was.

“If another major surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,” WHO said in a technical note, adding though that “to date, no deaths linked to Omicron variant have been reported.”

EU health authorities have said the new strain poses a “high to very high risk” to the continent.

Countries including Italy as well as Germany and the UK have brought in travel restrictions in a bid to contain the spread of the variant. 


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