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The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has officially been found in the United States; nine cases have been reported across five states so far.
First identified in South Africa in late November, Omicron has been labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.
Much is still unknown about the new COVID-19 variant, but it appears to be highly contagious; the CDC urges all eligible Americans to get vaccinated and boosted now.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is quickly spreading across the United States—and scientists are slowly learning more about the the strain labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) in late November.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a report detailing what the agency has learned from 43 Omicron cases detected in the U.S. between December 1, when the first American case of COVID-19 from Omicron was identified, and December 8.
The CDC data found that 58% of the cases were in people between the ages of 18 and 39. The earliest someone with the Omicron variant developed symptoms was November 15, suggesting that the variant has been in the country for longer than most people realize. Fourteen of the people with COVID-19 cases due to Omicron had traveled internationally within 14 days before they developed symptoms or tested positive for the virus.
The researchers also found that 34 cases (or 79%) happened in people who completed their primary series of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 14 of those receiving a booster dose (five of those in the booster camp received their third shot less than 14 days before they developed symptoms). Six of the people who contracted COVID-19 from the Omicron variant (or 14%) had a documented case of COVID-19 in the past.
The data found that one patient was hospitalized for two days. No deaths from the Omicron variant have been reported.
For months now, the Delta variant has been the driving force behind the vast majority of COVID-19 cases in the United States and around the world; Delta made up 99.9% of domestic SARS-CoV-2 infections during the first week of December, CDC data reveals.
But now, Omicron has the potential to spread more rapidly than Delta, according to public health experts. The “overall global risk” of Omicron is “very high,” the WHO warned in a brief this week. “Omicron is a highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations … some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility.”
But why are experts worried about Omicron? How contagious is the strain? And are the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters effective against it? Here’s everything you need to know about the Omicron variant, according to doctors.
What is the Omicron variant?
The Omicron variant, also called B.1.1.529, is a strain of COVID-19 that was first detected in South Africa on November 9 and reported to the WHO on November 24. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of [Omicron],” the agency wrote on November 26. Since then, its presence has only appeared to grow—as of last week, Omicron infections have increased in nearly all provinces in South Africa. (There is no indication the variant originated in South Africa; that’s simply where it was first detected.)
Preliminary research suggests that the new variant, which has many mutations in its spike protein, poses an increased risk of reinfection, the WHO notes. “This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the organization says. Omicron has been detected in South Africa, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia, according to the Associated Press. CDC data show that the variant is spreading fast in the U.S., too.
It’s unclear whether Omicron causes more severe illness than other variants, including Delta. “Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron,” the WHO writes.
For now, there’s a lot we don’t know about Omicron, including its transmissibility compared to other forms of SARS-CoV-2 like Delta, its impact on vaccines, and whether or not it causes more severe disease. Because it’s still so new, more time and research are necessary before drawing conclusions.
How effective are vaccines and boosters against the new variant?
As the WHO stresses, experts can’t say yet what the vaccine efficacy against the Omicron variant is; there is not enough research to understand how the available COVID-19 vaccines and boosters interact with the new strain.
“We know what it takes to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the CDC explains. Along with prevention strategies like wearing face masks in public, washing your hands frequently, and practicing physical distancing, the agency recommends that everyone age 5 and above get vaccinated and eligible adults get booster shots.
“It appears that the hospitalized patients in South Africa [who were infected with Omicron] were largely unvaccinated, arguing vaccines protect against what matters,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
But, he says, the CDC’s latest report is “reassuring as there was not much, if any, severe disease. He adds, “What will be important is to see how this evolves as larger quantities of persons are infected, including high risk individuals and those who aren’t vaccinated.”
“We know almost nothing about Omicron,” explains Kawsar Talaat, M.D., an infectious disease doctor, vaccine researcher, and assistant professor in the department of International Health at Johns Hopkins University. “It is possible that boosters will be necessary to help protect against infections with this variant. We just don’t know because we don’t have that data yet.”
But as long as you’re fully vaccinated—and especially if you’re boosted—you’re probably as protected as you can be right now. “If you are fully vaccinated and you’ve received your booster shot, your degree of protection is extraordinarily high,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. “That would provide a buffer, even if this variant is more resistant to vaccination than earlier versions.”
He explains that it’s “unquestionable” that the higher degree of protection from COVID-19 you have “the better off you are with this variant and with others as well. … [This] should re-emphasize the importance for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated and those who are eligible to get their booster shots.”
What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?
According to the WHO, there is no information to suggest that Omicron has symptoms that are different from other COVID-19 strains. “Initial reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks, the WHO says.
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
However, the CDC report found that most patients with Omicron had the following symptoms:
Here’s where things get slightly tricky: Dr. Russo points out that most people who were infected with the Omicron variant (80%) were fully vaccinated against the virus. “That will shift the symptoms to be asymptomatic or more mild,” he says. Meaning, it’s difficult to say at this point how Omicron may impact those who are unvaccinated. “In everyone else, it’s kind of too soon to tell,” Dr. Russo said. “There is still a chunk of people out there that have no protection at all.”
How can you tell symptoms of a cold from Omicron?
The runny nose, congestion, and cough sounds a lot like a cold, so how can you tell that from symptoms of Omicron? Unfortunately, you really can’t. “If you’ve been vaccinated and/or had an infection before, you should have heightened concern that what feels trivial could be COVID,” Dr. Russo says.
Dr. Adalja agrees. “With infection with any COVID variant, it is difficult to distinguish it from a cold,” he says. “Therefore, testing is important.”
How worried should you be about Omicron?
Although public health experts are expressing concern about the Omicron variant, the overwhelming message is that no one should panic—there’s still a lot to learn about the new strain, and the news might not be all bad.
“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa,” Francis Collins, M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “It has the earmarks, therefore, of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. What we don’t know is whether it can compete with Delta.”
“I know, America, you’re really tired of hearing about those things,” he added, “but the virus is not tired of us.”
“It’s too early to know what level of threat B.1.1.529 constitutes as there is not enough information—particularly clinical information—about the cases that have been identified,” Dr. Adalja explains. We still require “a lot of investigation to characterize what it may mean for immunity—vaccine and infection-induced—as well as monoclonal antibodies.”
Dr. Russo agrees that it’s still tough to known what to expect from Omicron at this point. “We’re all hoping that Omicron will be a milder variant,” he says.
“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” President Joe Biden said on December 2. “We moved forward in the face of Covid-19 Delta variant, and we’ll move forward in the face of the Omicron variant as well.”
“The most important thing is to get your first series of vaccines,” Dr. Talaat says. “If you haven’t already been vaccinated, this is a really good time to get vaccinated, because Delta is about to surge again. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Omicron, and the best way to protect yourself and the people you love around you is to get vaccinated.”
This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.
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