What Experts Do and Don’t Know About the Omicron Covid-19 Variant

A female doctor in a blue surgical gown holding a long cotton swab used for covid-19 testing
To reduce the risk of contracting and spreading Omicron, experts offer the same proven advice as they do against all Covid-19 variants: social distancing, masking, and getting vaccinated and boosted. Morsa Images via Getty Images

Last week, scientists from South Africa confirmed that they detected a new Covid-19 variant with a high number of mutations. Experts caution that they don’t yet know how the highly-mutated variant, which was given the official Greek letter designation of Omicron, will compare to previous types. But it’s possible that Omicron, which has been labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, could spread more quickly and attack the body’s immune system more aggressively, according to reporters at the Washington Post.

“This is the most concerning variant we’ve seen since Delta,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, in an interview Friday. “It’s going to take a really high bar for something to take over for Delta, and we don’t know whether this is going to do it.”

Fear over Omicron’s spread has spurred several countries, including the United States, to restrict travel from certain nations in Southern Africa. As of today, the new variant has been identified in more than a dozen counties, including Australia, Britain, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, and the Netherlands, with new cases cropping up around the world each day. Though South Africa was the first country to report cases of the variant, experts emphasize that Omicron may have originated elsewhere.

The reason Omicron is raising concern is that the variant has a large number of mutations compared to previous Covid-19 variants like Alpha and Delta, which could impact how easily the virus spreads. A clue that Omicron may be more transmissible is the rapid pace it has spread through South Africa, a nation where nearly a quarter of adults are fully vaccinated.

Ian Sanne, an infectious-disease specialist and member of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Council on Covid-19, said in a news conference Friday that Omicron was already becoming the dominant variant in the county, and “overall, we do think it’s more transmissible” than previous types.

Changes to the virus’s spike proteins, which is how the virus accesses human cells, could also render vaccines less effective against the new variant, reports Vox’s Ellen Ioanes. Experts are optimistic that current vaccines will offer some protection. Vaccine producers like Pfizer-BioNTech are already working to understand how their vaccines will hold up against the new variant and exploring how they can tailor formulas to target Omicron and other Covid-19 variants that may emerge. 

“I don’t think there’s any possibility that [the Omicron variant] could completely evade any protection by vaccine,” said Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical advisor and infection disease expert. “It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost.”

Omicron’s mutations could also make the variant more effective at dismantling the body’s immune system, but so far, there is no indication that those who contract Omicron fare worse than those infected with other Covid-19 variants like Delta.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Omicron has not been detected in the United States yet but could be soon. To reduce the risk of contracting and spreading Omicron, experts offer the same proven advice as they do against all Covid-19 variants: social distancing, masking, and getting vaccinated and boosted.

“It’s not going to be possible to keep this infection out of the country,” Fauci told the New York Times. “The question is: Can you slow it down?”

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