A new strain of the coronavirus has been spreading its way across the globe. The omicron variant was first detected in early November 2021 in Botswana and South Africa. On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated it as a variant of concern, on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE). This decision was based on the evidence presented to the TAG-VE that omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes. Here is a summary of what is currently known about the omicron variant.
Why is Omicron a Concern?
Variants like omicron are the biggest threat to any end to the pandemic and scientists warn that they will continue to emerge as the virus spreads. The omicron variant features more than 30 mutations to the virus’ spike proteins, which cover the outside of the virus and are the main targets of vaccines and treatments like monoclonal antibodies. The mutations could help the variant spread more easily and could enable it to evade protective antibodies generated by vaccines or through natural immunity from previous infections. The WHO has stated that the omicron variant is spreading faster than any previously detected strain of the coronavirus.
Does Omicron Cause More Severe Illness or Symptoms?
Evidence so far doesn’t suggest that’s the case, but it’s too early to tell. The first real-world analysis of the variant, released this month, looked at cases in South Africa. Results suggest that it may cause less severe illness than the delta variant, which is still the dominant strain of the coronavirus in most countries. South African health officials found that on average, 29% fewer people were being admitted to the hospital than during the previous wave of delta infections. Although this data is encouraging, experts say that it’s too soon to know whether the omicron variant does, indeed, cause milder illness or whether other factors, including South Africa’s younger population, play a role.
In the United States, the first few dozen confirmed Omicron cases have been mostly mild, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC studied 43 people infected with the variant, one of whom was hospitalized for two days, and found that the most commonly reported symptoms were cough, fatigue and congestion or a runny nose. More than three-quarters of the participants were fully vaccinated, and one-third of those people had also had the booster shot. The CDC has called the report a “starting point,” adding that the agency will continue to closely monitor the variant. Experts also cautioned that even if the omicron variant does cause less severe illness, big spikes in infections could still overwhelm health care systems in hard-hit countries.
Is it More Contagious?
Early research suggests that the Omicron variant is more contagious than earlier strains of the coronavirus, but a definitive picture of its transmissibility isn’t yet known. Case numbers in hard-hit places, such as South Africa and the United Kingdom, are increasing exponentially, which suggests that the variant is highly transmissible, but research continues. After Omicron was first identified in South Africa last month, it took less than three weeks to become the dominant variant in the country. It has also overtaken the delta variant and become dominant in England and Scotland, according to health officials in the United Kingdom.
Are Vaccines Effective Against Omicron?
Experts have expressed concerns that the variant’s mutations could allow it to dodge some protective antibodies generated by vaccines. Early lab studies indicate that it may be somewhat resistant to vaccines, although it probably doesn’t evade them entirely. More research is needed, however, to understand what the preliminary findings mean in real-world settings. An analysis released by South Africa’s largest health care administrator found that two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 70% effective at protecting against hospitalization from infection with the omicron variant, compared to 90% protection against hospitalization from the delta variant. Preliminary data also found that booster shots could play a key role in countering the drop in antibodies against the omicron variant.
Where is it Spreading?
Cases have been confirmed in more than 89 countries, according to the WHO. The first case in the U.S. was confirmed on December 1st in California. Omicron infections have since been detected in all 50 states and Washington D.C., and the variant now accounts for nearly three-quarters of new cases in the country, according to the CDC. Early signs are showing that the omicron variant is spreading faster than the delta variant and could soon overtake the delta variant in the United States.
What Should you do?
With so many unknowns, patience and prudence are key. It will take some time to get definitive answers about the omicron variant. In the meantime, there are still public health tools available to help control the spread. The WHO recommends keeping a physical distance of at least 6 feet, wearing a well-fitting mask, opening windows to improve ventilation, avoiding poorly ventilated or crowded spaces, keeping hands clean, getting tested, and to receive the vaccine if you have not yet done so.
HealthLynked will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available on our COVID-19 Omicron variant information page.