Coronavirus – Disease, Medical Sciences Involved & Preventive Measures

What is Omicron Variant?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: COVID mutation

Mains level: Not Much

A new lineage of SARS-CoV-2 has been designated as a Variant of Concern (VoC) by the World Health Organization (WHO) and has been named Omicron.

Behind the name: Omicron

  • The WHO has been using Greek letters to refer to the most widely prevalent coronavirus variants, which otherwise carry long scientific names.
  • It had already used 12 letters of the Greek alphabet before the newest variant emerged in South Africa this week.
  • After Mu, the 12th named after a Greek letter, WHO selected the name Omicron, instead of Nu or Xi, the two letters between Mu and Omicron.
  • The WHO said Nu could have been confused with the word ‘new’ while Xi was not picked up following a convention.

Why is the Omicron variant interesting?

  • The Omicron variant is interesting due to the fact that it has a large number of mutations compared to other prevalent variants circulating across the world.
  • This includes 32 mutations in the spike protein.
  • Many of these mutations lie in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein, a key part of the protein required for binding to the human receptor proteins for entry into the cell.
  • It can thus play an important role in recognition by antibodies generated due to a previous infection or by vaccines.

What do spike mutations do?

  • Many of the mutations in the spike protein have been previously suggested to cause resistance to antibodies as well as increased transmission.
  • Thus, there is a possibility that this variant could be more likely to re-infect people who have developed immunity against previous variants of the virus.
  • The behavior of the virus is not yet accurately predictable based on the evidence on individual mutations.

Does the variant result in vaccine breakthrough infections?

  • Some of the initial individuals identified to be infected with the variant have been vaccinated for COVID-19 and therefore the variant can indeed cause vaccine breakthrough infections.
  • This should not be of concern, since the prevalent variants of concern including Delta have been shown to cause breakthrough infections.
  • Whether the variant causes more breakthrough infections than Delta is not currently known.

How can we be prepared for the variant?

  • Enhanced surveillance and genome sequencing efforts are essential to detect and track the prevalence of the Omicron variant.
  • Rapid sharing of genome sequences of the virus and the epidemiological data linked with it to publicly available databases will help in developing a better understanding of the variant.
  • Existing public health and social measures need to be strengthened to control and prevent transmission.
  • Enhancing vaccination coverage across different regions along with access to testing, therapeutics and support will be essential for combating the new variant.
  • Equitable access to vaccines would be key to controlling the Omicron variant, and slowing down the emergence of any future variants.


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