Omicron: What to expect now that the latest COVID-19 variant has hit the U.S.

The sudden emergence of Omicron — the dystopian-sounding new coronavirus variant with at least one confirmed case in the U.S.— has ushered in the most disorienting phase of the pandemic since COVID-19 first materialized two winters ago. Yahoo News explains when and how we’ll learn more about Omicron and just how much of a threat it poses.

Video Transcript

- The emergence of Omicron, the dystopian-sounding new coronavirus variant, has ushered in the most disorienting phase of the pandemic since COVID-19 first materialized two winters. Ago on the one hand, Omicron is so heavily mutated that one leading infectious disease researcher described it as completely insane. On the other hand, we don't know much yet about how Omicron behaves in the real world.

So when exactly will we know more? Here's a timeline of what to expect. Right now, Omicron is already in the United States. The first confirmed case was identified in California.

ANTHONY FAUCI: The individual was fully vaccinated and experienced mild symptoms, which are improving at this point.

- Omicron has also been detected in South Africa and Botswana, as well as in travelers to more than a dozen other countries. According to Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, the best way for individuals to prepare is by getting their booster shots.

FRANCIS COLLINS: The booster, it basically enlarges the capacity of your immune system to recognize all kinds of different spike proteins it's never seen. This is a great day to go get boosted or to find out how to do so at vaccines.gov.

- In the first week of December, some preliminary information on transmission and severity may begin to emerge. In isolation, Omicron's mutations look ominous, with early signs pointing to increased infectiousness. But mutations don't operate in isolation. They work together.

So the only way to know for sure how Omicron behaves in humans is to observe how it behaves in humans. And that takes time. Then, after December 7 or so, early data on immune evasion will begin to emerge. Initial reports out of South Africa suggest that both vaccinated and previously infected people have been testing positive for Omicron, with relatively mild symptoms, which is in line with expectations.

And by mid-January, if necessary, new vaccines will be formulated. The good thing about mRNA vaccines, like Pfizer and Moderna, is that they were designed to be easily and rapidly modified in response to threats like Omicron. The other good thing is that the process is already underway. The vaccine-makers are also testing whether booster shots or larger doses of the original vaccine will bolster the immune system enough to fend off Omicron.

And then in late February, new vaccines will be ready to ship if approved by regulators. Whether that will be necessary remains to be seen.

- There's a reasonable degree of confidence in vaccine circles that at least three doses of fully boosted patient is going to have fairly good protection against this variant.

- The good news is that we're infinitely more prepared and protected now than we were back in March 2020, with widespread testing, promising therapies, and easy-to-update vaccines. And, thanks to the heroic South African researchers who caught Omicron early in immediately alerted the rest of the world, we're already way ahead of the curve in terms of figuring out what kind of threat it represents.

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