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Considering the fact that Omicron, especially BA.2 subvariant, is difficult to detect, currently, several studies are being conducted on how future COVID variants can be identified. A study by UK-based COVID tracker ZOE COVID app suggested that it is extremely essential to combine different kinds of tests, surveys etc. to keep looking for new variants. “PCR tests have been incredibly useful in tracking the emergence of variants," the study said. 

How will we identify new COVID variants in the future?

For this, a combination of different kinds of tests, surveys and monitoring is needed to remain on top of COVID and the governments continue to look out for new variants.

“PCR tests have been incredibly useful in tracking the emergence of variants" said Professor Wendy Barclay, Head of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London

How PCR tests detect new COVID variants?  

When you have a PCR test, your sample goes through three separate PCR reactions in the lab - each looking for a different bit of COVID genetic make-up. For Omicron, one of the three reactions shows up negative. If a new variant has changes in their genetic makeup, the PCR test is able to show COVID is present and give an early indication that it’s different.

“Omicron was picked up in this way and its spread across the UK monitored via PCR tests," Barclay added.

What does Omicron tell us about the future of COVID?

As we learn more about Omicron, there may be changes in how we use vaccines and boosters to best protect the population. 

If Omicron causes a relatively mild infection in most people, especially those who have already had three or four doses of the current vaccines, it becomes important for us to better identify who needs boosters and updated vaccines.

“The next big discussions will be around where we go in terms of protecting future vulnerable people," said Barclay.

How virulent the next COVIvariant will be?

Several studies are still ongoing to explain how might the virus mutate next or whether the vaccines will work against it. 

“This won't be the last variant we see and we don’t know the characteristics of future ones", Barclay said. 

“But thanks to the great uptake of vaccines, we have a good level of base immunity among the public and there’s evidence that even for an antigenic escape (ability to escape our immune system) variant like Omicron being vaccinated reduces the risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death."

 

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