Durban, South Africa — COVID-19 researchers suit up in protective gear before heading into the Africa Health Research Institute’s high-security bio-hazard lab, where they are growing live Omicron, which will be tested against the blood of fully immunized people, as well as those who were previously infected.
“This is probably the most mutated virus we’d ever seen,” said virologist Alex Sigal, who is leading the team of researchers that first identified the new variant.
The Omicron variant has more than 50 mutations — with over 30 in the spike protein — enhancing the virus’ ability to infect the body.
“It’s more of a Frankenstein than others,” Sigal said. “It’s always something new. I mean, the virus keeps surprising us.”
Within 36 hours of discovering the new variant, these scientists alerted the world. Some countries, including the U.S., are now banning travel from several countries in southern Africa in an attempt to prevent the spread.
Sigal’s team is collaborating with other scientists to find out if the variant is more transmissible or evades immunity. The lab has received multiple requests for samples of Omicron, which are being packed and shipped off to other research institutes around the country.
Scientists will know in about 10 days whether existing vaccines can stop Omicron, but Sigal is confident the current vaccines will still provide protection against severe illness and hospitalization.
But Sigal warned that as long as Africa lags behind in vaccinations, the virus will continue to mutate. Omicron has mainly infected young people in Africa, and South African doctors say those infected have mild symptoms for the most part.