Omicron: Here's Everything You Need to Know About the New COVID Variant
A number of important questions have arisen after a new COVID-19 variant, dubbed the Omicron variant, was discovered in South Africa on Wednesday, and scientists are scrambling to find the answers. The variant has resulted in international travel bans, a stock market crash, increased quarantine procedures and heightened concern about the pandemic.
The earliest known incidence of the omicron variant was on November 9, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and the mutation was first detected on November 24. And on Friday, according to the Associated Press, South Africa recorded 2,828 new COVID-19 cases, with up to 90 percent of those cases caused by the omicron variant.
The virus is on its way to other countries as it has also been discovered in Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom, according to CNN.
The WHO has already designated omicron as a “variant of concern,” meaning it may be more transmissible, virulent, or capable of evading vaccine protection than the original COVID-19 strain.
"This thing is a Frankenstein mix of all of the greatest hits," Dr. Hoge said to The New York Times, while talking about the variant's mutations. “It just triggered every one of our alarm bells.”
It'll take weeks to figure out how rapidly it can spread and what the illness caused by the variant looks like. Nonetheless, here's a rundown of everything we know (and don't know) so far.
What we know so far
The WHO's classification of Omicron as a variant of concern is based on numerous "concerning" mutations the variant has that may alter its behavior. Omicron has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, which is what the virus utilizes to bind to human cells and what COVID vaccines teach our immune system to recognize and target.
This is more than double the number carried by Delta, and preliminary findings paint a rather mixed picture. The limited data we have of the variant suggests it may be more transmissible and capable of evading the body’s immune responses, both to vaccination and to natural infection, than previous versions of the virus.
We don't know if the Omicron variant is more deadly or causes more severe disease than the Delta variant because there are so few confirmed cases. However, while it's still an early observation, a South African doctor, who was one of the first to suspect a new coronavirus variant, stated that symptoms of the omicron variant were so far mild and could be treated at home, per Reuters.
And it should also be noted that experts say the vaccines still work and are the best way to protect yourself from the virus. Nonetheless, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are poised to reformulate their shots if necessary, according to ABC.
Where does the world stand
With looming uncertainty, the world is scrambling to enact additional restrictions to curb the spread of the new variant. While Omicron is likely already in the United States, President Joe Biden announced on Friday new travel restrictions on eight southern African countries; Lesotho, South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Botswana. The restrictions will take effect on Monday and will not apply to U.S. citizens or green card holders, per Vox. Other nations like the U.K., Australia, Israel, France, and Germany are also restricting travel from southern African nations, too.
While there are still many unknowns regarding the omicron, researchers agree that it's a concerning development. As the holiday season and cold weather bring people together indoors, where transmission occurs, such precautions are especially important. One thing is certain: masking and social separation, as well as vaccination and booster shots, are the most important tools in our arsenal to prevent the spread of COVID-19.