Briefing

The game plan to address COVID-19's Omicron variant

The new Omicron coronavirus variant has now been detected in more than 23 countries, including the United States. What makes Omicron different from other variants, and will it drastically change the way the U.S. is handling the pandemic? Here's what you need to know:

What is a coronavirus variant?

Viruses constantly mutate, and sometimes, the mutations make a disease more infectious. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are tracking COVID-19 variants of interest (VOIs) and variants of concern (VOCs). To be a variant of concern, there has to be evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease, and/or reduced effectiveness of vaccines or treatments. On Monday, the WHO announced that it designated Omicron as a VOC, due to its large number of mutations.

So those mutations are what make the Omicron variant stand out?

Yes. Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa and Botswana in late November, has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to human cells. This is an "unusually high number of mutations," The New York Times reports, meaning that Omicron has the potential to be more transmissible and less susceptible to existing vaccines. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday said the "emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is," and is another reminder "that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us."

When will we know if this is a highly contagious variant, like Delta?

Experts believe that within the next few weeks, scientists will have a clearer picture of Omicron and whether it spreads more easily, causes severe illness, and can get around vaccines. Some variants fizzle out — one example is Beta, which never became a serious threat because it didn't transmit quickly. Delta is a different story; it's more than two times as contagious as earlier variants, and data suggests is might cause more severe illness in unvaccinated patients. Delta is the dominant strain in the United States, and still surging in many parts of the country, including Michigan and Minnesota.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 lag new infections by at least two weeks, and South African Medical Association Chair Dr. Angelique Coetzee said that so far, hospitals in the country have not been overwhelmed with patients infected by the Omicron variant. Most of those hospitalized are not fully vaccinated, Coetzee said, and many of the patients she has seen have minor coughs and never lost their senses of taste and smell. 

Where else has the Omicron variant been detected?

It's been found in 23 countries, including Italy, the Netherlands, and Britain. The first U.S. case was reported in California on Wednesday — the patient, an adult between 18 and 49 years old, lives in San Francisco, and traveled to South Africa, returning to the U.S. on Nov. 22. The patient is fully vaccinated, and has mild symptoms; the CDC said their close contacts have all tested negative so far. Since then, Omicron cases have been detected in New York, Hawaii, Colorado, and Minnesota.

How is the U.S. government responding to Omicron?

Some countries, including Israel, Japan, and Morocco, are not letting in foreign travelers, but the United States is not going that far. In a USA Today op-ed published Thursday, President Biden said while Omicron is "a cause for concern, it is not a cause to panic." Instead of "shutdowns or lockdowns," the U.S. is going to fight COVID-19 broadly with "more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more," Biden said. 

In order to "beat this pandemic at home, we have to beat this pandemic globally," Biden added, and as such plans to ship out 200 million more vaccine doses to foreign countries in the next 100 days. Additionally, anyone flying into the U.S. from abroad will have to get tested for COVID-19 within one day of their departure, as this "tighter testing timeline will help slow the spread of the virus," Biden said. 

What about vaccines and Omicron?

Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson — the manufacturers of the COVID-19 vaccines administered in the United States — are all studying Omicron and adjusting formulations to test against the variant. WHO officials in Europe said on Wednesday that so far, no evidence has emerged indicating that the current COVID-19 vaccines would be less effective against Omicron. They believe it's more likely that the vaccines will have to be tweaked to target new variants, rather than completely revamped.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, is urging people to get vaccinated and get their booster shots, saying on Sunday's Meet the Press that the "really good news" is "when you get boosted, the level of your antibody goes way, way above what the level at its peak was after the second dose. So the booster not only gets you back up to where you were, it gets you way, way, way up. And that's the reason why we feel, even with variants like Omicron, that if you get boosted, you're going to get a level of antibody that's high enough that it is likely you'll be able to get at least some degree, and maybe a lot of protection, against this." He believes the Omicron variant should be a "clarion call" to "push aside all of these differences that we have and say, 'If you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you're fully vaccinated, get boosted and get the children vaccinated also."

Should Omicron change how we think about the state of the pandemic?

For now, there are still too many unanswered questions about Omicron, including its transmissibility and how vaccines hold up against it. Health and government officials are stressing to the public that things are different now compared to the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, when the novel coronavirus first emerged and spread like wildfire worldwide. "We are in a much better place," Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco's director of health, told reporters on Wednesday. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) agreed, saying, "There's more panic than information around the new variant. And that just means we have to keep our minds open, but maintain our vigilance."

It's important to focus on measures that are known to prevent the spread of COVID-19, no matter the variant: wear a mask inside; get vaccinated and follow up with a booster when it's time; get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms; and stay at home if sick.

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