November 29, 2021 – Health experts around the world are concerned about the recently discovered variant of COVID-19, Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa. The country’s health minister announced last week that the variant has already spread to different parts of the country.
The next day, the World Health Organization named Omicron a “variant of concern”.
President Joe Biden echoed this statement during a press briefing today, but stressed that the new variant is a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
COVID-19 vaccine makers are studying the vaccine’s protection against the new variant.
“The mutations of the Omicron variant are worrying, and for several days we have been moving as quickly as possible to execute our strategy to fight this variant,” said Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, in a statement.
Pfizer says data on the protection of its vaccine against Omicron is expected to be released in the coming weeks.
A number of countries are making efforts to prevent the global spread of Omicron. The United States is just one of many countries that have placed new travel restrictions on South Africa and its neighboring countries.
So what makes Omicron different from other COVID-19 variants? And how concerned should we be? Health experts help us break it down. And go here to learn more about the COVID-19 variants.
What do we know about the Omicron variant so far?
There’s a lot we don’t know about Omicron, including whether it causes more severe disease than other variants, says Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and professor of public health at George Washington University.
But what we do know is that this is a variant with an unusually high number of mutations or changes in the genetic material of the virus.
Early evidence also shows that the Omicron variant can spread more easily than other COVID-19 variants, she says.
“This is very concerning because Delta, which is the dominant variant here in the United States and around the world, is already extremely contagious. So if this is even more contagious, it could displace the Delta variant, ”says Wen.
Is the Omicron variant in the United States?
To date, no cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in the United States.
Either way, you need to stay calm, says William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
“Even if it were to be here in the United States, the dominant strain – the 99% that causes disease in your community today – that strain is Delta,” he says.
“And we know the vaccines work against Delta.”
Will COVID-19 vaccines provide sufficient protection against the Omicron variant?
“We don’t know if the large number of mutations makes vaccines less effective against this variant,” says Wen.
“Although many scientists believe – especially with a booster – that this will not render the vaccines ineffective.”
What are the common symptoms of the Omicron variant?
We don’t have that information yet, Wen said.
With so much still unknown, what can I do now to protect myself and my family from the Omicron variant?
If you’re still wondering if you should get the COVID-19 shot, the Omicron variant is one of the main reasons to get the shot as soon as possible, Wen says.
“This includes adolescents and children aged 5 to 11. “
Now is also a great time to get your COVID-19 booster, according to Schaffner.
Booster shots increase your antibody levels, which gives you both longer protection and a stronger immune response against COVID-19 variants, he says.
“I can’t tell you exactly what it is [a booster shot] will do against Omicron, but there will likely be, at the very least, partial protection, ”Schaffer said.
“And partial protection is always better than no protection. “
What should I worry about the most with the Omicron variant?
The spread of the virus, serious illness and the effectiveness of vaccines go hand in hand. Therefore, all three are of concern, Wen says.
“Let’s say something is more communicable, but it doesn’t cause more serious disease and vaccines work great against that. It’s not particularly worrying, ”says Wen.
“Or, if something isn’t very contagious but it’s even more serious, it’s also not as much of a concern as it’s not going to move Delta.”
“So it’s really a combination of these factors that could make this variant very worrying.”