3 Things to know about COVID-19 Omicron variant, by experts

*Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health professionals explain what they know so far about the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus, and offer practical tips for keeping yourself safe as it spreads across the world

Web Editor | ConsumerConnect

In a matter of days, a new Coronavirus variant has gone from unknown to one of concern, putting the world on high alert and snarling global travel in the process.

Omicron, as it is called, has been linked to a rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa, and has since popped up in the United States (US) and about 36 other countries, including Nigeria, England, France and Japan as of Saturday, December 4, 2021.

Scientists are racing to learn more about the new strain, including how quickly it spreads and 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.

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 Dr. 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 now responsible for more than 99 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the US — 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 recent news briefing. “It’s something different.”

Omicron could be more dangerous than previous variants

It’s too early to say what all these mutations mean, but studies underway should provide some answers in a few weeks.

Coronavirus Variants of Concern

The World Health Organisation (WHO) named omicron a “variant of concern” on November 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 as follows: Alpha, designated December 18, 2020; Beta, designated December 18, 2020; Gamma, designated January 11, 2021; Delta, designated May 11, 2021; and Omicron, designated November 26, 2021.

A concern experts have is that the variant could be more contagious.

Fauci said that some of omicron’s mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility (meaning it may spread more easily). That could explain why South Africa experienced a sudden surge in new cases of COVID-19 after a recent lull, Ozer says.

“They quickly realised that a large number of these new cases were not due to the delta variant, as had been the case earlier in the year, but were more due to a new variant that had not been seen before,” he says.

What’s more, people who already had COVID-19 seem to be getting reinfected with omicron more easily, the World Health Organisation? notes.

Another worry is that all of the changes on omicron’s spike protein could make it more resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, since these therapies target that unique feature.

Experts are also trying to understand whether Omicron causes more severe symptoms than other forms of the virus — a particular concern for people already at high risk for complications from COVID.

Masks, vaccines and boosters are key

Public health experts say omicron’s arrival in the US. 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 — even if it turns out that omicron diminishes a degree of vaccine effectiveness.

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,” Dr. 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.

Plus, let’s not forget that the variant that has a hold on the U.S. isn’t omicron?; it’s delta, and it’s still causing about 1,000 deaths a day, mostly among unvaccinated individuals. “And these vaccines are very effective against delta,” Schaffner says.

“So there are two reasons to make sure that we’re vaccinated and boosted.”

Health officials are in talks with vaccine makers about modifying their formulas to target omicron more specifically.

However, it will likely be months before a tailored version is available, considering the time needed for manufacturing, testing and reviewing a new product.

COVID testing is another action that experts are encouraging as the threat of omicron looms. 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.” (AARP.ORG)

Kindly Share This Story