Analysis: the new coronavirus variant seems highly transmissible, but the big question is whether it causes severe disease. Either way, poorer nations will be hit hardestA child receives his Pfizer vaccine against Covid in a township near Johannesburg. Photograph: Denis Farrell/AP
In early August Gideon Schreiber and a team of virologists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel began playing around with the spike protein of the Sars-CoV-2 virus – the protein that allows the virus to enter our cells – to see if they could predict future mutations that could yield dangerous new variants of Covid-19.
At the time, Schreiber noted with concern that there were a variety of ways in which the spike protein could evolve. If all of these mutations occurred at once, it could yield a variant that was both extremely transmissible and potentially capable of evading some of the body’s immune defences, blunting the efficacy of the vaccines.
Schreiber published the findings in a paper, and thought little more of it. But three months later, his fears have been realised. A variant known as B.1.1.529– which the World Health Organization named Omicron on Friday – has emerged in South Africa in the last two weeks possessing all of the mutations that Schreiber and his team predicted.