The Omicron Variant: What We Know and What We Don’t

Well, you’re gonna have to learn your Latin alphabet sooner or later, because the number of novel coronavirus variants in the wild shows no sign of slowing down. Just when you started to get a little bored of Delta, some scientists are expressing concern about Omicron — a new variant that could create new headaches for healthcare workers and presents a fresh danger to the unvaccinated. How much of a danger? Well, let’s take a look at what we know and what we don’t.

For starters, the World Health Organization has labeled Omicron a “variant of concern.” A variant gets that label when signs suggest that it could be more contagious than other variants, or its symptoms could be more serious or its more resistant to standard public health guidelines. As of right now, it’s not clear whether any (or all) of these are actually the case — only that WHO has good cause to investigate. That will take a few weeks. But in the meantime, here’s what we do know.

Is the Omicron variant more contagious?

COVID-19 is mutating towards being more transmissible all the time. Delta was more transmissible than Alpha, which is why it became the dominant variant earlier this year. Could Omicron be more transmissible than delta? It’s hard to say but, if so, those without any immunity in the U.S.  — still a pretty large number, since only about 70 percent of Americans have received at least one dose — will probably feel the brunt of it in the coming weeks and months.

The cause of concern is coming from South Africa, one of the world’s most responsible nations in terms of genetic sequencing. They were the first to realize the COVID-19 cases were spiking, and highlighted the omicron variant as a possible culprit. Now, it’s also possible the South Africa’s relatively low vaccination rate and/or a rash of recent superspreader events could be to blame for the spikes. We just don’t know.

Does the Omicron variant cause a more serious disease? 

The next question is whether people who catch Omicron have a greater chance of getting seriously sick or even dying, and that’s another one where we don’t have great answers yet.

Vox spoke with Bill Hanage, a Harvard University epidemiologist. He said that he’s been keeping an eye on infection rates in Israel. Israel has one of the world’s best vaccination rates so researchers can use rates there to theorize how variants might affect other countries. At this point, it looks like Omicron may have milder symptoms than other variants, which would be very good news — but the UN also notes that most cases so far have been reported among younger people, who generally fare better against COVID-19 than older people. We’ll just have to stay tuned.

Are the vaccines effective against Omicron?

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This is the big question. Vaccines are our most effective tool against the virus, but the vaccines in question were designed to target a specific type of virus. If that virus mutates, the vaccine may not target it as effectively.

Now, the key phrase here is “as effectively.” In all likelihood, any COVID-19 vaccine is better than nothing at all against a variant. “Let’s be clear: It is extremely unlikely that Omicron will render the COVID-19 vaccines completely ineffective,” Brown University School of Public Health Dean Ashish Jha wrote in the New York Times. So, if you’re vaccinated, you can breathe easier. If you’ve got your booster shot, even better.

Just how effective will that be against Omicron? We’ll need some more time to sort that out. It’s possible that this mutation has a few ways of slipping around the vaccine, but there’s no reason to panic yet. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated, now might be a good time to take the jump and shore up your immune system. Whatever incoming data reveals about Omicron, scientists remain on high alert for a variant that does prove to be more transmissible or cause more serious symptoms than previous iterations of the virus. In the meantime, the best we can do is stay vigilant and use the tools available.

As Jha wrote in the Times: “The world has the means to manage this variant. Let’s use them.”

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