Q: How worried should we be about the omicron variant?
A: I have a healthy respect for this variant named omicron. I evaluate each variant based on three criteria: transmissibility, severity and evasiveness.
Let me explain.
Transmissibility means how many other people one person can infect. With the original COVID-19 strain it was about two and a half people, with the delta COVID-19 strain it was likely five other persons and we believe that with the omicron one person may be able to infect six to 12 people. This is nearly as infectious as measles, which is one of the most infectious diseases known to us.
Severity means what is the level of illness and death a virus causes. We know that with the original strain and the delta strain the mortality rate as per the reported cases is about 1.6%. At present we do not believe that omicron will be any more severe.
Evasiveness means how likely is the mutant strain able to evade the vaccine antibodies or the antibodies from a previous infection. It is doubtful that omicron can completely evade previous antibodies however most likely the antibodies may be less protective.
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What is the likelihood that omicron will spread as fast as COVID-19 across the globe?
Very likely. If we look at the behavior of the omicron strain in regions where it has caused community spread such as South Africa, we know it has tremendous potential to create a very rapid rise in cases much like or even worse than the delta strain.
However, we have to see if this occurs in other parts of the world to be sure that no unique factors are leading to the rise in South Africa.
There is a chance the delta strain can suppress the omicron strain or there may be some higher level of cross- immunity from previous infection to prevent a new omicron wave.
What type of illness can the new variant cause to someone who has underlying health issues? Is it similar to COVID-19?
Infection among the immunocompromised is the most concerning to me. Everyday, I see COVID-19 patients in my infusion clinic and in the hospital. Many who are not vaccinated and critically ill could have been protected with a vaccine, but some who are vaccinated and are immunocompromised may still get severe COVID-19 infection.
A highly infectious variant like omicron will seek out nearly every vulnerable person and cause a COVID-19 infection unless they are vaccinated and boosted.
We estimate 5% of the population has some level of immune disorder and if everyone is vaccinated we help protect them.
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When is comes to protection, how much will the vaccines protect us from omicron?
Studies are undergoing now, however if we look at the general behavior of viruses and vaccinations, there will be some level of cross-immunity and protection from vaccines for various strains.
Hence being vaccinated is much much better than not being vaccinated. Being vaccinated will very likely protect from hospitalization and death from omicron COVID-19 infection.
What are some of the solutions to avoiding omicron?
We need to be vigilant and take early action as was done by the World Health Organization.
Think of COVID-19 protection as layering clothes on a cold winter day.
Just as a sweater, jacket, hat, and scarf provide varying degrees of protection, likewise social distancing, masking, vaccination, monoclonal antibodies and soon to be released antiviral drugs will provide protection from COVID-19 and especially Omicron.
For the long term our best protection will be vaccine and antiviral medicines.
Manoj Jain is an infectious disease physician in Tennessee and faculty at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, Atlanta.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: How to protect yourself and what to expect from omicron variant