New research shows that the Omicron variant of COVID is more resilient than its predecessors.
A recently published report in the online medical journal Medical News Today reveals that the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 survives for 193.5 hours – more than three times as long as the original Wuhan strain, which clocked in at 59 hours, and longer than all other variants so far.
Similarly, Omicron’s survival time on the skin of cadavers measures 21.1 hours longer than all previous variants and well beyond the 8.6 hours of the original version.
Interestingly, a study of average survival times of the original strain and all five major variants shows no linear progression of the survival times in either direction. On skin, the original strain lasted 8.6 hours, jumping dramatically to 19.6 hours for Alpha. This figure slipped back to 19.1 for the Beta variant and then dropped right back to 11 hours. Since then, the lifespan has trended back upwards – 16.8 hours for Delta and now 21.1 for Omicron.
Does a longer-lasting variant spell greater risk for us?
The longer the virus survives on surfaces such as plastic and skin, the greater the chance that it could infect us and that may be a contributing factor in Omicron being a highly transmissible variant of COVID.
Fortunately, though, Omicron is proving to be less virulent than Delta, so the risk of serious illness if infected is lower.
Can I do anything to reduce the risk of contracting Omicron?
All the recommendations you’ve become familiar with in the two years of this pandemic remain relevant. General hygiene, wearing a mask and maintaining social distance are still important.
Being fully vaccinated – including a third (booster) dose – is the best defence of all, however. While there are indications that first and second doses no longer offer as much protection as they once did, the booster dose is providing broadly strong protection. That’s the expert opinion of ARC Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Sydney Professor Eddie Holmes, who specialises in the evolution and emergence of infectious diseases, particularly the mechanisms by which RNA viruses jump species boundaries to emerge in humans and other animals.
Speaking on the latest episode of Doctor Karl Kruszelnicki’s podcast Shirtloads of Science, Prof. Holmes said the latest research on Omicron indicates that “the third booster shot actually does protect pretty well. The first two [vaccines] not so good, but the third one definitely covers Omicron pretty well.”
Will the virus continue to mutate?
Put simply, yes. As an RNA virus, COVID evolves rapidly naturally, with new mutations occurring pretty much daily. The key to slowing down the evolution is vaccination. While countries – such as Australia – that have high vaccination rates are unlikely to see rapid evolution of the virus, those with lower rates of vaccination are far more likely to do so.
A high vaccination rate worldwide will stifle the evolution of the virus dramatically, making the need for frequent boosters less likely. “It puts the brake on the evolution of the virus,” says Prof. Holmes.
A lower vaccination rate makes it much harder to predict what the next few months will look like. “Because we have such a large pool of unvaccinated people [in some parts of the world], we don’t know how the virus is going to evolve in those sorts of individuals.
“We have this strange mix of some countries, like Australia, that are well vaccinated, and some countries very poorly vaccinated. With such contrasting levels of immunity, evolution is quite unpredictable.”
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