Over the holiday weekend, news broke of a new coronavirus variant, which scientists have named “Omicron.” This discovery has prompted a new wave of research into what Omicron means for immunity, vaccines, disease spread, and illness severity.
But it’s still very early on, and Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN that “there’s no reason to panic.” So… don’t panic.
But there are some things we know already, which you should know to protect your family as we head into the end of the year.
What is the Omicron variant?
The Omicron variant is the latest “version” of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Variations on the genetic code that make up the coronavirus evolve all the time, but public health officials monitor for any new version of the coronavirus that seems to spread widely and rapidly, affect disease outcomes, or have the potential to overcome existing treatment and prevention measures, like vaccines, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
These versions of the virus are called “Variants of Concern,” and they’re named after Greek letters – hence “Omicron.” Other variants of concern include the Delta and Alpha variants, both identified last year, which caused new COVID-19 case waves around the world.
Where did it come from?
The Omicron variant has now been found in a few countries, but was first discovered in South Africa, reports The New York Times. And case numbers in that country have begun to rise again, though they remain lower than previous peaks. STAT notes that South Africa and Botswana might have just noticed the variant first because they robustly monitor for virus variants.
Either way, Omicron cases have already shown up in multiple other countries, including many parts of Europe, Australia, Israel, Hong Kong, and Canada, the Times reports. It’s not yet known to be in the United States, but Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News that it’s only a matter of time.
Why are scientists worried?
The Omicron variant contains a number of mutations that change the structure of the virus’s “spike protein,” reports The New York Times. The spike protein is the part of the virus that attaches to our cells to infect us. It’s also the part where the antibodies produced by vaccines attach to the virus, notes STAT. If the changes to the spike protein are significant enough, it’s possible that these antibodies won’t recognize the virus – and fare worse at attacking the virus, STAT explains.
In addition, the variant seems to be spreading quickly. Currently, the highly transmissible Delta variant is dominant in many countries – and accounts for nearly all the cases in the United States. But in South Africa, the Omicron variant seems to be overtaking Delta, STAT reports.
Does Omicron cause more or less severe disease?
Short answer: We don’t know. The WHO says that it’s simply too early to know that kind of information – but we will learn more in the coming weeks.
Do the vaccines work against the Omicron variant?
We don’t know that either. As mentioned above, there is a concern that the spike protein variations will affect the antibody response. But you don’t just get one type of antibody after being vaccinated – vaccines will stimulate antibodies that attack a variety of locations on the spike protein, STAT reports, meaning that there could still be some protection. In addition, vaccination can also stimulate other parts of the immune system such as T cells, which might be more robust against viral variation, STAT notes.
Researchers are studying the effect of the existing vaccines on the virus, though results will take a couple of weeks, reports The New York Times. Dr. Collins also told CNN that we may start to understand a little more about the vaccine’s response with data coming out of South Africa in the next couple of weeks as well.
In addition, both Pfizer and Moderna have stated that they can update and test their vaccines within a few months, the Times reports.
What can I do to keep my family safe as we learn more?
The biggest take-away right now? Don’t freak out, but be cautious.
We’re going to learn more in the coming weeks that can help guide decisions and help us all make safe next steps but for now, the same precautions as always are relevant.
In response to the Omicron variant, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended wearing a mask indoors in areas with high community transmission, washing hands, and physical distancing.
But the most important thing to do is get you and your children fully vaccinated. Kids as young as five can now receive vaccines against the coronavirus, which are widely available and free. In addition, all adults in the United States are now eligible for booster shots – and there is some speculation that booster shots might create a strong enough immune response to ward off some new variants, STAT reports.
- Keep up the good work at preventative measures like masking, hand washing, and physical distancing
- Get everyone aged 5 and older vaccinated
- Sign up for that booster appointment yourself if you haven’t done so already
- Don’t jump to any conclusions before we have more information