In late November 2021, reports of a new variant of COVID-19 began circulating across the globe. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified and named the B.1.1.529 variant “Omicron” and designated it as a new Variant of Concern (VOC), as did the US CDC. Already detected in at least 19 US States, it’s still too soon to determine what the actual implications might be, but here’s what we know today.
What’s different about Omicron?
Omicron became a variant of interest due to the high number of mutations found in its genetic sequencing, particularly in its spike protein, a key area of focus for treatments and vaccinations. This could mean that it could better evade acquired natural immunity (people who’ve been previously infected) but it’s still too soon to tell.
Is it more infectious?
Right now it appears that the Omicron variant may be more transmissible than previous variants, but it’s still unclear if it will be more transmissible or competitive with the widely spreading and dominant Delta variant. Scientists expect that it will be transmissible by both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals even if they’re not showing any symptoms.
Is the disease more severe with Omicron?
This is the biggest question still to be answered - typically it takes a few weeks after infections are detected to determine the severity, so Omicron identified infected individuals are being monitored especially closely and we should know within the next few weeks
Are vaccines still effective?
The CDC expects that our current vaccines should still protect against severe illness, hospitalization and deaths due to infection of the Omicron variant, but we don’t yet know how prevalent breakthrough infections might be in fully vaccinated individuals. Similar to the Delta variant where vaccines have been effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, scientists expect fully vaccinated individuals to have a fair level of protection from the Omicron variant.
Are COVID-19 treatments still effective?
It’s still early days for COVID-19 treatments, so researchers will be monitoring the effectiveness against infections of the Omicron variant closely to see if there’s any diminished effectiveness.
The best way to protect yourself, your family and your community continues to be to get vaccinated and boosted. Other measures like masking, social distancing and frequent testing can also help - thank you for doing your part to keep us all healthy!
To learn more or to schedule a COVID-19 appointment, visit our COVID-19 vaccine page.