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The COVID-19 variant Omicron is celebrating a birthday of sorts. One year ago today, it was labeled “a variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.
There have been no additional VOCs named by the WHO since then – just subvariants of Omicron with a jumble of letters, periods and numbers to identify them. The current prevalent ones are BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, sometimes called “the BQs.”
Omicron’s impact on public health and lifestyles worldwide has been so profound that its official naming is now commemorated in a widely distributed “Today in History” column.
“The United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from southern Africa” in response to Omicron’s emergence, The Associated Press history column says.
Initially identified in Botswana and South Africa, scientists later realized the earliest known cases of Omicron occurred in The Netherlands, Yale Medicine summarized. The CDC confirmed the first U.S. case in California on December 1, 2021.
Many researchers hypothesize that Omicron “arose in a single person, perhaps with a compromised immune system, who had a chronic case of Covid that lasted months,” The New York Times reported. Another theory the Times noted was that an early form of coronavirus in mice evolved into Omicron and then moved from mice back to humans.
From December 2021 into the new year, the high transmissibility of Omicron fueled cases to record levels.
“Countries which had so far been successful in keeping COVID-19 at bay through public health and social measures now found themselves struggling,” the WHO summarized in a retrospective article on Omicron. “For individuals, the greatest price was paid by those who were at risk of severe disease but not vaccinated, and we saw hospitalizations and deaths rise in a number of places around the world.”
The sheer number of cases created many opportunities for the virus to evolve. Today, there are more than 500 known sublineages of Omicron.
COVID-19 experts told the Times they are hopeful that lessons learned by the scientific and public health communities position the world to be well-equipped to handle whatever the virus has in store, and perhaps even predict its next moves.
“It has made me very hopeful for the future as a paradigm,” German computational biologist Moritz Gerstung told the Times. “It’s an instance of how one could basically get ahead of the game.”
The Associated Press: “Today in History.”
Yale Medicine: “Omicron and the BQs: A Guide to What We Know.”
The New York Times: “Happy Birthday, Omicron.”
World Health Organization: “One year since the emergence of COVID-19 virus variant Omicron.”