- Scientists currently know little about the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 (coronavirus).
- Although officials have detected the variant in North America, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that cases are mostly concentrated in South Africa.
- More information will emerge rapidly in the "coming days and weeks," per WHO.
The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has arrived in the United States, with at least 19 states detecting the strain as of Tuesday.
On November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron as the latest COVID-19 (coronavirus) "variant of concern," following its recent emergence in South Africa. That means there is evidence that this strain of SARS-CoV-2 could increase transmissibility of the disease; lead to more severe cases; reduce the effectiveness of antibodies, treatments, or vaccines; or create diagnostic detection failures, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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So far, there isn't much research on Omicron, but WHO says studies are currently underway to assess the variant's "transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments."
To understand what could conceivably transpire with Omicron, look to Delta, another COVID-19 variant of concern that peaked over the summer, leading to "breakthrough infections" in the vaccinated and more hospitalizations among the unvaccinated. For context, there are 130 known subtypes of just one of the four types of flu viruses.
What Is the Omicron Variant?
Like the Delta variant, Omicron is a different strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19: SARS-CoV-2. There are still other variants that don't meet the criteria to be considered variants of concern, which is typical for how viruses behave and evolve in the real world.
Officially, Omicron is called "variant B.1.1.529." It has a "large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," according to WHO. Early research showed that this strain may pose an increased risk of re-infection, but further study so far has revealed people with previous infection plus vaccination are well protected from omicron.
Where Did the Omicron Variant Come From?
Scientists first identified Omicron in South Africa, where researchers and doctors reported it to the WHO for further study and action. The first cases were among college students and appear to be relatively mild; however, that may be because young, healthy adults are more likely to experience mild cases of COVID-19. Further study is required to understand the variant's severity.
Do Vaccines Work Against the Omicron Variant?
There isn't much specific information about Omicron and vaccines, yet, but so far from early research, it seems that the vaccines alone are not completely effective against Omicron. Preliminary new research from Pfizer and BioNTech, published Tuesday, states that "three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine neutralize the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529 lineage), while two doses show significantly reduced neutralization titers." In other words, you should probably get a booster if you can.
Meanwhile, people who have both previously had COVID-19 (coronavirus), and who have received the vaccine, appear to be well-protected against Omicron. An expert tells CNN that the booster is also still a great idea as a way to boost overall protection. He also says the vaccines we received had an amount of extra "buffer" protection that will help close the gap with Omicron.
How Contagious Is the Omicron Variant?
According to new research from a Japanese scientist who advises that country's health ministry, Omicron is 4.2 times more transmissible than Delta. The strain also has a "record" number of mutations, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told Fox News Sunday.
The number of positive tests in South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, is high. But it's not clear how many of these cases are due to Omicron, in particular, and WHO is waiting on the results from more specific studies to help answer questions about how contagious Omicron might be.
How Serious Is the Omicron Variant?
The first reported cases of Omicron came from college students, who generally have milder COVID-19 symptoms than other populations. There's some early evidence that hospitalizations are up in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified. WHO stresses that this could be due to higher rates of all the SARS-CoV-2 variants, not just Omicron. More study is required.
Will the Omicron Variant Make You Sicker?
WHO is currently reporting that Omicron isn't known to be any more severe than other variants. That said, the most effective treatments and preventions, from the vaccine to corticosteroids, are still patients' best bets for keeping their COVID-19 (coronavirus) infections as mild as possible.
What's the Last Word on the Omicron Variant?
In the coming days and weeks, we should learn more about Omicron and have results from preliminary studies conducted by WHO and reputable universities and research organizations. As a part of its efforts, WHO is also asking global government health groups to step up their surveillance of positive COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases by testing for the genomic signature to make sure cases of Omicron are properly documented. This data, compiled over time, will help everyone around the world to identify the symptoms and seriousness of Omicron compared to the other variants.
December 9, 2021: This story has been updated to include new research from Japan and from Pfizer-BioNTech.