Amid the global concern over a new coronavirus strain has been one piece of hopeful news: Those infected with the omicron variant appear to have “very mild” symptoms, according to the South African doctor who first spotted the variant.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee told the BBC that neither she nor her colleagues had admitted anyone who had the strain to the hospital so far. Her patients had experienced extreme fatigue but no loss of taste or smell, which are often telltale symptoms of Covid-19, she said.
The early reports are encouraging, epidemiologists and other experts said.
But they cautioned that there is too little data to draw any conclusions yet. Their bigger concern, they said, is how quickly the omicron variant, with its high number of mutations, might spread and how it will match up against vaccines.
“I don’t think we know anything about the virulence. What we’re worried more about is the transmissibility and the immune-evasion capabilities,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease doctor who is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Adalja said he suspected that vaccination would still provide strong protection against severe disease, while unvaccinated people who have natural immunity from previous Covid infections could be at even higher risk for getting the virus again.
“It may be that breakthrough infections or reinfections become more common with this, but it’s probably unlikely that you see severe breakthrough infections become common in healthy people,” he said.
In the meantime, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are racing to determine whether their vaccines will protect against the variant and exploring ways to tweak them if necessary.
With the omicron variant, it’s not just the number of mutations but also where they are that has caught researchers’ attention, said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The variant has a number of spike mutations never seen before.
“The antigen we use in the vaccines is specifically the spike protein, so there’s always a concern that the more mutations you see in the spike protein, the greater the possibility that it could be able to evade the immunity provided by the vaccine if it’s different enough,” he said. “We still don’t really know.”
The variant’s mutations may also make it more contagious. In South Africa, new infections tripled in the past week. But only about 35 percent of adults in South Africa are fully vaccinated, compared to 70.9 percent of adults in the U.S.
Whether the variant will spread as quickly in countries with higher vaccination rates is still to be determined, said Ramon Lorenzo-Redondo, the bioinformatics director of the Center for Pathogen Genomics and Microbial Evolution at the Harvey Institute for Global Health and a research assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“It might not even establish in other countries,” Lorenzo-Redondo said. “It’s still too early to know if this variant is going to spread. Maybe other factors, like higher vaccination, will stop this.”
The strain so far has been detected in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Belgium and a number of other countries, in addition to South Africa. While it has yet to be found in the U.S., the government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said over the weekend that he would “not be surprised” if it is already circulating here.
Why you shouldn't panic
Despite the unknowns and the World Health Organization’s deeming the omicron strain to be a “variant of concern,” the experts all had the same message: Don’t panic.
“This is what viruses do. They mutate. This is normal,” said Melissa Nolan, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. “This will not be the last variant of concern. There will be more as long as we still have people unvaccinated, susceptible to disease.”
The same methods of protection that have worked throughout the pandemic will continue to work, the experts said, such as wearing masks and washing your hands.
And while not everyone globally has access to vaccines, those in the U.S. who haven’t been vaccinated should take the opportunity to get immunized, they said.
“This is another reminder that if you haven’t gotten your vaccination, you should get it,” Nolan said. “If you are fully vaccinated and boosted, you are probably OK.”