A new variant of COVID-19 has emerged and is spreading to dozens of countries. Here's what you need to know about the Omicron variant and how to stay safe and prevent new variants.
Over the weekend, health officials identified a new strain of the COVID-19 virus, a variant that’s been dubbed ‘Omicron.’
Not much is precisely known about the new variant, but Omicron has a significant amount of mutations from the original strain of the virus and three times as many mutations as the Delta variant that emerged earlier this year.
There’s no need to panic about the Omicron variant, but there are still concerns about its transmissibility and the efficacy of vaccines against it. Let’s break down what we know about Omicron and identify what we should do while we learn more about this new version of COVID-19.
Where Omicron Has Been Spotted
The Omicron variant was first clearly identified by scientists in South Africa and announced to the world on November 24, but it was likely present in Europe before being flagged initially and cases are emerging without travel links to South Africa, raising questions about the variant’s actual origins.
In South Africa, Omicron was found in 74% of the 249 virus genomes sequenced in November, according to the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Since the original alert, Omicron has been identified in 24 countries around the world, including Germany, Belgium, Canada, Australia, Israel, the Netherlands, Japan, China, and the United States. The first Omicron case in the US was detected in California on Wednesday, December 1, from a man who traveled from South Africa. He was vaccinated and experiencing mild symptoms, but did not receive a booster shot.
Further cases have been detected in Colorado, New York, Hawaii, and Minnesota, with New York City's health commissioner indicating that community spread is occurring amid the Empire State's five cases.
Omicron could have a wider distribution than we currently know due to inconsistent testing regimes around the world and the novelty of the variant.
What Makes Omicron Different
What makes Omicron so potentially potent is the large number (30) of mutations on its spike protein, the region of the virus used to attach to human cells and spread its infection.
Vaccines utilize our knowledge of a given virus’s spike protein to teach the body to attack invading viruses before they cause and spread infection. mRNA vaccines like those from Moderna and Pfizer induce the body to create the spike protein for the body to react to as if it’s an infection and prepare defenses. Viral vector vaccines like those from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca use a modified version of the virus that includes the spike protein to teach the body the same thing.
Mutations on the spike protein affect both how infectious a viral variant is and how well vaccines protect against them, so Omicron’s large number of mutations is worrisome for the global community. For context, Delta had 10 mutations on the spike protein.
That said, the number of variations does not tell the whole story -- the location is more important. Based on the location of the mutations on the Omicron variant, there is some concern that it may evade vaccines more often than Delta has. Several studies are in progress to find out just how well vaccines protect against Omicron, as well as the variant’s transmissibility and severity of infection.
Thus far, Omicron appears to be more contagious than the Delta variant, but it’s unclear if it produces more severe infections. Given our knowledge about how viruses mutate, the likelihood is that though this and additional variants may become more infectious, severity may continue to decline. This is because when severity is less, the virus has a greater chance of infecting more people which is any virus’s ultimate goal. In other words, the more people that die from a virus, the harder it is to spread, replicate, and mutate.
We Don’t Know How Effective the Vaccines Are Yet
At this time, it is unclear how well the current slate of vaccines protects against the new variant. Researchers across government and industry around the world are researching this unknown.
As mentioned earlier, there are some concerns regarding the locations of Omicron’s mutations and the impact they have on vaccine efficacy. However, we won’t know for a couple more weeks how effective the vaccines and boosters are against this new variant.
The good news is that mRNA vaccines are easily modifiable, because the only thing that changes is the mRNA sequence encoded into the vaccine. Labs at Pfizer and Moderna are already looking at how they could implement additional vaccines to target variants such as Omicron. A potentially updated vaccine could be deployed in as little as 3-4 months or early next year.
Cases of reinfection of people who already have had COVID-19 and were not vaccinated have also gone up in South Africa since the Omicron variant emerged. This is further evidence that a previous COVID-19 infection does not provide sufficient protection against future reinfection. In fact, studies have shown that people who have had a previous infection and then get vaccinated have a particularly strong immune response to COVID.
How to Stay Safe Against Omicron
We don’t know everything about the Omicron variant, but we know that standard COVID precautions can help prevent its spread.
It’s not exciting, but people should still:
- Get vaccinated if they haven’t already
- Per recent CDC guidelines, adults previously vaccinated should pursue a booster shot when eligible (6 months after a full round of mRNA shots & 2 months after a viral vector shot)
- Mask up, especially in public places
- Practice physical distancing and avoiding crowds when possible is still helpful
- Frequent hand washing helps reduce the spread of COVID-19 as well as other viral infections such as flu and colds
For now there are no changes on the current mask guidelines from the government. We will closely monitor local and national guidelines as we learn more about this new variant.
How To Stop New Variants from Emerging
Viruses mutate after passing between only a few hosts, but most of these mutations are insubstantial. When a virus infects a large population, it mutates much more often and that’s how these serious variants like Delta and Omicron have developed.
The number one way to prevent the emergence of new variants is to stop the spread of the virus – and the best defense we have is vaccination.
If you’re worried about the Omicron variant, please feel free to reach out to Radish Health, consult government updates and policies, or contact your physician for additional advice.