In a matter of days, a new coronavirus variant went from unknown to one of concern, putting the world on high alert and snarling global travel and holiday plans in the process.
Omicron, as it’s called, was first linked to a rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa and has since been driving a spike in infections in the U.S. and several other countries. Scientists are racing to learn more about the new strain, including whether it can cause more severe disease. Here’s what we know so far about omicron — plus tips for keeping yourself safe as it spreads.
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A multitude of mutations makes it stand out
Viruses change and evolve as they circulate, so variations of the original version are expected. “You might think of it as a new cousin in the family,” says William Schaffner, M.D., a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Omicron, however, has what top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, M.D., calls “a very unusual constellation of changes" compared to previous coronavirus strains.
Delta — the variant that rose to dominance over the summer and is still responsible for roughly a quarter of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. — has about 10 mutations on the all-important spike protein part of the virus, says Egon Ozer, M.D., an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and director of the Center for Pathogen Genomics and Microbial Evolution in the Havey Institute for Global Health.
Omicron, on the other hand, has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein alone, and around 50 in total. “This is not delta,” Fauci emphasized in a White House news briefing. “It's something different.”
Omicron could be more dangerous than previous variants
It’s still too early to say what all these mutations mean, but studies underway are starting to provide some answers.
Coronavirus Variants of Concern
The World Health Organization (WHO) named omicron a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26 — a classification reserved for variants that have been associated with increased transmissibility, more severe disease or reduced effectiveness of available diagnostics (treatments, vaccines, tests, etc.). It joins four others on WHO’s list:
- Alpha, designated Dec. 18, 2020
- Beta, designated Dec. 18, 2020
- Gamma, designated Jan. 11, 2021
- Delta, designated May 11, 2021
- Omicron, designated Nov. 26, 2021
Source: World Health Organization
One thing that’s for certain: Omicron’s presence in the U.S. is quickly increasing. In just a week it went from causing a small slice of new COVID-19 cases to becoming the dominant variant, knocking delta out of its long-held position.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expecting a surge in new infections as the variant takes hold. The agency says omicron’s rapid rise is believed to be a result of a combination of mutations that make it more contagious and better able to sidestep some of the protections afforded by the vaccines or a previous infection.
Additional data is needed to determine whether omicron will cause more severe illness compared to other variants — some preliminary reports suggest it may actually be less severe, although it’s too early to say for sure — and what breakthrough infections might look like in people who have been vaccinated and boosted. Researchers are also studying whether our current suite of treatments will still be able to hold up against COVID. Based on some of omicron’s changes, the CDC says, “some treatments are likely to remain effective, while others may be less effective.” Most tests are expected to identify a coronavirus infection caused by omicron, the Food and Drug Administration has said.
Masks, vaccines and boosters are key
Public health experts say omicron's arrival in the U.S. doesn't change the best measures of protection — the ones they have been encouraging all along.
“I don't think that this changes the fundamentals of what we know works for protecting against transmission of the virus. I don't think that this is necessarily going to make masks less effective; it's not going to make social distancing less effective. These are the things that are tried and true,” Ozer says.
With winter here, it’s also important to avoid poorly ventilated spaces and crowded indoor settings, both of which give the virus more of an opportunity to spread.
A booster shot, if you haven’t had one already, will enhance your protection against COVID. That’s because the vaccines don’t just zero in on one part of the spike protein, they target multiple parts of it, “and so loss of effectiveness against one part of this spike protein may not affect antibodies that have been developed against other parts,” Ozer says. And what a booster shot does is give those antibodies some extra oomph.
With a high enough antibody level, hand in hand with “other elements of the immune response,” Fauci said, “there’s every reason to believe” the vaccines will continue to be able to keep people from getting severely ill from omicron and other variants.
Both Pfizer and Moderna are working on developing an omicron-specific vaccine that could be available as early as spring of 2022, in case one is needed.
COVID testing is another action that experts are encouraging with omicron here. Rapid tests can help to quickly identify cases before they spread. And along with other precautionary measures, they can bring peace of mind to people as they gather over the holidays.
Finally: Get your flu shot. If omicron does turn out to be a more virulent version of the virus, the “last thing we want is a twindemic — an outbreak of COVID and an outbreak of flu at the same time — both hitting our hospitals simultaneously,” Schaffner says.
“I would just say it’s time to redouble your efforts; we're not out of the woods yet,” Ozer says. “I think the emergence of this variant is a sure sign of that, so we just need to keep doing the things that we need to do, which is protecting ourselves and protecting our families [and] those around us.”
Editor's Note: This story, originally published on Dec. 15, 2021, has been updated to reflect new information.
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.