Masked researchers analyzing medical samples
Masked researchers analyzing medical samples
Masked researchers analyzing medical samples

COVID Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know

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Published on December 6, 2021

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, several coronavirus variants have emerged as the virus, SARS-CoV-2, continues to mutate and evolve. Many of these variants’ mutations have little or no impact on how the virus affects humans. But others, such as the genetic changes in the delta variant, can make the coronavirus more transmissible contagious) than the original version of SARS-CoV-2 that was discovered in late 2019.

In November 2021, a variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus emerged, and was named omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO currently lists the omicron as a variant of concern. Stuart Ray, M.D., vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics, and Robert Bollinger, M.D., M.P.H., Raj and Kamla Gupta Professor of Infectious Diseases, are experts in SARS-CoV-2, and they address your questions about the omicron coronavirus variant.

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Omicron: There is much to learn

Because of its recent emergence, scientists are just starting to learn about omicron, but intense research is quickly uncovering more insight on this variant and how its genetic changes might affect its spread and people who are infected with it. Bollinger and Ray say the next few weeks will provide even more clarity, and address some questions.

Is omicron more transmissible (contagious)?

“There is some preliminary evidence suggesting the omicron variant is more infectious than the delta variant,” says Bollinger. “But there is no evidence so far that the standard prevention strategies, including vaccination, masking, distancing, ventilation and hand-washing are not effective in reducing the risk of infection or transmission.”

Does omicron cause more severe COVID-19 illness?

“For omicron, there are very limited data on this,” Bollinger says. “But, so far, the answer appears to be no.  We will know more about this in the coming weeks.”

Do the COVID vaccines still work and reduce the risk of severe illness?

According to Bollinger and Ray, this is the most important question, and with so little data, a lot is still unknown.

“My own expectation is that being fully vaccinated, including boosters, will still provide a reduced risk of hospitalization and death,” Bollinger says. “In the weeks ahead, we will learn more about how well the antibodies induced by the current vaccinations can neutralize the omicron variant in the laboratory. If they can, that will be good news.

“I am also confident that if we find that the current vaccines are not providing optimal protection against severe disease or death due to this variant, we will be able to quickly modify the current vaccines to address omicron.”

Does the omicron variant show up on COVID tests?

The available commercial diagnostic PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and antigen COVID tests still appear to work to identify the omicron variant. We will know more in the coming weeks about how well the rapid at-home tests perform to detect the new variant.

Do the current antiviral drugs still work on omicron?

Some antiviral drugs work by limiting a virus’ ability to make copies of itself (replicate) in the body. Remdesivir is the only such antiviral drug currently authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat COVID-19. Two other antiviral drugs, one from Merck and one from Pfizer, are under FDA review to see if they, too, can be authorized.

“I have not seen any data so far,” Bollinger says, “that would suggest that these drugs would work less well for omicron than for any of the other variants. However, continued studies will reveal more about these mutations and potential impact the drugs may have on their viral replication.”

Do current monoclonal antibody (MAbs) treatments still work for people infected with the omicron variant?

“For other variants, providing high-risk infected and exposed patients with early access to MAbs reduces their risk of hospitalization and death by up to 70%.

“We do not know yet how well the current MAbs will work for the omicron variant, but we will know very soon how well they neutralize omicron in the lab,” Bollinger says. “If they do, this will be reassuring. If they do not, I am confident that we will be able to quickly modify the current MAbs to address this,” he says.

“We still have a lot to learn about omicron,” Ray says, “but we have tools at hand that enable individuals to manage risk, including wearing a high-quality mask, or respirators. Those rated FFP2 or FFP3 are more protective than cloth masks, and often easier to wear. Getting vaccinated and getting a COVID-19 booster, hand-washing and avoiding large indoor gatherings, especially with unmasked people, are other ways to mitigate the risk of infection.

“This new variant is a reminder that we should be using multiple tools for the safety of ourselves and those for whom we care.”

Learn more about variants.