Everything we know about the Omicron variant

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Late last week, The World Health Organization warned that a new Covid variant, given the name Omicron, posed a “very high” global risk. The variant was first identified in South Africa and has a large number of spike mutations that may make it more infectious among vulnerable populations, specifically, the unvaccinated.

We don’t know much yet about this extremely unwelcome holiday gift, but we do know that it’s already spreading fast. What’s not clear at this point is whether the variant causes more severe disease or how well the current Covid vaccines work against Omicron. Scientists are working around the clock to learn more about the variant and assess vaccine effectiveness, but it will still likely be a couple of weeks before we have more information.

This is worrisome news, for sure, and may give some people flashbacks to March 2020, when we first entered pandemic lockdown. But that was pre-vaccines, and we’re in a better position now to pivot accordingly.

In a press briefing on Monday, Nov. 29, President Biden urged Americans to keep calm. “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” the president stated. “I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”

While we don’t know everything yet about Omicron, we at least know where our current knowledge gaps lie. Here’s the latest.

Does Omicron cause more severe disease?

We don’t have evidence yet that people infected with the Omicron variant experience a more severe form of disease than those infected with earlier strains of Covid. Omicron does seem to be highly contagious, but we also don’t know if it’s more contagious than the Delta variant, the prevailing variant of concern. 

Omicron has been detected in several cases of vaccinated individuals, but breakthrough cases tend to be mild to moderate so far, which is why Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Biden, says that booster shots are important for reducing severe disease. He continues to believe that “existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases,” Dr. Fauci is quoted as saying in a White House press release

No cases have been detected in the U.S. yet

Even though cases have not yet been pinpointed in the U.S., Omicron cases have been discovered in Canada, which means that the virus is currently circulating in North America. Of course, this timing is not ideal—with millions of people gearing up for holiday travel, many are worried about how Omicron will impact holiday plans. Several travel restrictions have already been put in place, and there are surely more to come. 

Vaccine boosters are the best strategy for prevention

But we’ll need more than just travel restrictions to slow the spread. The best thing you can do now to prevent infection is to get a booster shot, and ensure everyone in your family who is eligible for vaccination is vaccinated as soon as possible. All adults over the age of 18 who got a Covid vaccine more than 6 months ago are eligible for a third dose, and children ages 5 and up are currently eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

The Washington Post

Are worrisome variants the new normal?

A virus’ primary goal is to mutate, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus has done just that, many times over. Omicron is actually the seventh variant scientists have seen arise as a “variant of interest” since the pandemic started. 

Omicron was upgraded to “variant of concern” after seeing a rapid uptick in infections in South Africa, where the virus was first noticed. And though health officials are sounding the alarm, we have more tools at our disposal now, including masks, boosters and, most recently, vaccines for younger populations. With more of the population vaccinated, the virus will have fewer unvaccinated hosts to infect, spread and eventually mutate among. 

What can you do now?

Now’s not the time to let protection measures fall by the wayside. Try to keep your guard up by taking the following actions:

  • Wearing masks indoors at public places like stores and schools
  • Vaccinate your children if they’re eligible
  • Get yourself a booster shot if it’s been more than 6 months since your last Covid shot
  • Test before and after you go to any events

Early evidence suggests that prior Covid infection may be less effective at preventing new disease than in previous strains, but research on this is very limited at this time. 

It’s also important to try not to panic, and to remember that we’re not where we were when the pandemic started. “We now have a better understanding of how the virus is transmitted from person to person. We have antivirals that are coming down the pike,” says Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an infectious-disease physician, virologist and global-health expert at Emory University in the Atlantic. “We have a better understanding of how to manage and treat cases of people who do get infected. We have vaccines and incredible mRNA technology that allows us to adapt quickly to a changing virus, and we will have second-generation vaccines. It’s definitely not back to square one.”

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