Scientists Are Racing to Find Out Why Omicron Is So Much More Transmissible

Vaccines are once again key.
Chris Young

As the world, once again, came to terms with the idea of facing a new COVID variant that threw holiday plans into disarray, scientists were hard at work investigating.

When Omicron was first reported as a new variant of concern in November, initial results suggested that the new Omicron variant spread faster and produced "milder" symptoms than the previous dominant strain, Delta.

Now, as NPR points out, a series of new studies are shedding light on the nature of Omicron. Unsurprisingly, the results continue to suggest that vaccination drives are key.

A vastly different 'immune environment' compared to the start of the pandemic

Today, the world is much better protected against Covid than it was at the beginning of the pandemic, but Omicron has caused great concern by seemingly bypassing some of the protection provided by natural immunity as well as vaccination drives. A new study conducted in Denmark suggests that much of the Omicron variant's dominance comes from the fact that it is better able to evade the immune response. This draws up the interesting possibility that Omicron may not have become dominant in a world less protected against Delta and other variants by current vaccines.

For the study in Denmark, researchers concluded that Omicron is up to 3.7 times more infectious than the Delta variant among fully vaccinated individuals. For unvaccinated people, however, there was no significant difference in the rate of infection between the two variants. In other words, Delta and Omicron may have similar transmissibility, the world's population is simply more protected against Delta.

"The playing field for the virus right now is quite different than it was in the early days," Dr. Joshua Schiffer, an infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center told NPR. "The majority of variants we've seen to date couldn't survive in this immune environment."

Vaccines still key despite Omicron's high transmissibility among the vaccinated

In late November, over 110 people met at a Christmas party in Oslo, Norway. Though the majority of the guests were fully vaccinated, 70 percent of the partygoers were infected with the Omicron variant due to one individual attending who had returned from South Africa a few days earlier. Researchers who investigated the superspreader event concluded that Omicron has "highly transmissible" among the fully vaccinated. However, another study that is yet to be peer-reviewed suggests that Omicron is not so easily able to evade t-cells, the body's immunological second line of defense.   

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Meanwhile, during a visit to a vaccination center in Buckinghamshire, southeast England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said "the majority of people who are in ICU (intensive care) have not been vaccinated and the vast majority — about 90% — have not been boosted."

Experts have cautioned that we still have a lot to learn about Omicron. Though the variant's symptoms might be milder and even comparable to the common cold, its high transmissibility and capacity to evade vaccine protection mean that it could still result in high hospitalization rates. One thing remains certain, and that's the fact that those that are vaccinated remain most protected in a world that's racing to understand how exactly the new variant will alter the course of the pandemic.

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