the head of Krisp, at a state-run press conference

The scientists who were among a network that was the first to sequence omicron are watching to see if the highly mutated coronavirus variant will dictate the course of the pandemic.

Will future strains stem from its lineage or will other variants crowd it out?

Initial findings in South Africa, where omicron is driving the country’s fourth wave of infections, show that the new variant is easily transmitted and has largely overtaken delta, which had abated after an intense third wave of infections in the middle of 2021.

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That means, at least in South Africa, omicron is likely to form the base from which new mutations emerge, said Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist at the KRISP genomics institute based in Durban.

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“The jury is still out on whether omicron takes over from delta in all parts of the world, Lessells said in an interview on Tuesday. “Or whether delta is still evolving in some way and then we see this kind of co-circulation.”

Omicron’s discovery was announced by Tulio de Oliveira, the head of Krisp, at a state-run press conference on Nov. 25.

Scientists including Lessells, a close colleague of de Oliveira, are conducting a number of tests in order to get a better grasp of omicron’s risks, and how significant they are will only be known in the coming weeks.

The other possibility is that like omicron, “something comes out of the blue somewhat that hasn’t descended from either of these variants, but that has different properties again and so these are all the things we have to we have to look out for,” he said.

In South Africa, where 70 percent or more of the country’s 60 million people are estimated to have been exposed to Covid-19 during the past 18 months and about 26 percent are fully vaccinated, omicron’s symptoms have been milder than earlier strains. That may not be the case in countries where the coronavirus has been less rampant.

This virus “just wants to survive, nothing else,” Lessells said. “So it’s evolving to continue surviving now in the context of populations with high levels of immunity. It’s virus evolution in action.”

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