omicron, such as how easily it spreads, whether it causes more severe disease and how well people are protected by the current vaccines.
“Not a lot is known about the omicron variant, except that it may be very fast spreading,” said Dr. Marschall Runge, dean of the University of Michigan Medical School and CEO of Michigan Medicine. “The teams at Michigan Medicine are concerned. … We’re anxious about increasing cases with holiday gatherings coming up, particularly if unvaccinated individuals are attending.”
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What is the omicron variant?
This new strain of coronavirus has an unprecedented number of mutations — as many as 32 to the spike protein alone, the World Health Organization reports. The changes have some scientists concerned omicron may be more easily spread than other variants and could be more likely to cause re-infections among people who’ve had a different strain of the virus.
The first known and confirmed omicron case was detected in early November in test specimens in South Africa and Botswana. Since then, it has spread quickly around the world.
On Nov. 26, the WHO gave the B.1.1.529 variant the name omicron, classifying it as a variant of concern. Four days later, the U.S. also recognized omicron as a variant of concern.
Where has omicron been detected in the U.S.?
In addition to Michigan, the variant had been identified in 23 other states as of Thursday — Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the CDC.
It’s also spreading in dozens of other countries.
“State and local public health authorities, in collaboration with the CDC, are actively investigating confirmed and possible cases, conducting contact tracing, and implementing prevention strategies to help slow the spread of this new variant,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
The variant may have spread during the Anime New York City Convention, where 53,000 people gathered Nov. 19-21.
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“CDC … has now contacted all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., and 27 other countries with residents who attended, to inform them of this ongoing investigation,” Walensky said. “Of the reported 53,000 people who attended that conference, more than 35,000 and counting have been contacted to encourage testing for all attendees.
“Data from this investigation will likely provide some of the earliest looks in this country on the transmissibility of the variant.”
The CDC also is testing international travelers upon arrival to the U.S., Walensky said, and is sequencing all positive test samples from those travelers to detect omicron and other coronavirus variants.
“We must act together in this moment to address the impact of the current cases we are seeing, which are largely delta, and to prepare ourselves for the possibility of more omicron,” Walensky said Monday.
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“We must act in this moment … to do what we know works. We have months of study on delta, and all of those data demonstrate that vaccines work, testing works, masking works, and that ventilation works.”
Is the omicron variant more contagious?
Early evidence suggests omicron is even more contagious than the highly transmissible delta variant.
The mutations on a molecular level suggest omicron spreads more easily, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president.
“Real-world evidence is accumulating rapidly, literally on a daily basis, to allow us to determine increase in cases, possible increase in reproductive number, and the rapid replacement of delta by omicron in certain situations,” Fauci said.
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In South Africa, omicron now is the dominant variant, overtaking delta within just a few weeks.
“South Africa is having explosive spread” of the omicron variant, wrote Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist and an assistant professor the University of Texas Health Science Center.
“The test positivity rate in South Africa is 24%, which is bad as omicron is spreading faster than we can detect it.”
Does the omicron variant make people sicker?
It is too early to know for sure whether the omicron strain of the virus causes more severe disease, Fauci said, noting that early anecdotal evidence suggests it might not be as virulent as other strains.
“It might be — and I underscore might be — less severe as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases,” Fauci said.
But people shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the early studies of severity of omicron, Fauci said.
Will the vaccines work against omicron?
Scientists are conducting lab studies now that could provide more answers in the coming weeks about “whether or not antibodies induced by our vaccines lose their … effectiveness with omicron,” Fauci said Monday.
Pfizer issued an update Wednesday, saying lab studies show two doses of the vaccine it made with BioNTech may not be enough.
“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO and chairman, said in a statement.
“Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two-dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded eligibility for a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine Thursday to include 16- and 17-year-olds. That means all Americans 16 and older are eligible for boosters as long as it has been at least six months since the last dose in a primary series of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or at least two months since a single dose of the Johnson Johnson vaccine.
Pfizer is developing a newly adapted vaccine targeting the omicron variant. If it meets federal regulatory approval, it could be available for distribution in March, the company said Tuesday.
Moderna also is working on a reformulated version of its vaccine to directly target the omicron variant.
“As we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves. The mutations in the omicron variant are concerning and … we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement.
The company is taking a three-pronged approach, studying how a higher-dose booster holds up against omicron, as well as testing two other multivalent boosters and one that’s specifically created to address the omicron mutations.
Johnson Johnson is evaluating the effectiveness of its current COVID-19 vaccine against the omicron variant and also is pursuing an omicron variant-specific vaccine.
What about natural immunity with omicron?
A new pre-print study from South Africa, which has not been peer reviewed, suggests the omicron variant has a higher rate of re-infection among people who’ve already had other strains.
Jetelina said the research suggests the risk of re-infection with omicron could be as much as three times higher than it is with the delta variant.
“In other words, infection-induced immunity is not doing a great job at stopping omicron,” she wrote. “People who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with omicron.”
Do the treatments we have for COVID-19 work with omicron?
It’s still being researched as well, but health officials are hopeful.
“While we are still working to understand the severity of omicron, as well as how it responds to therapeutics and vaccines, we anticipate that all of the same measures will at least, in part, provide some protection against omicron,” Walensky said.
“So, if you are not yet vaccinated, this means getting vaccinated. If you are eligible to be boosted and you are not yet boosted, this also means getting boosted, along with wearing a mask in indoor public settings, frequently washing your hands, improving ventilation, physical distancing, and increased testing to slow transmission of this virus.”
“At a time where there is much uncertainty with Omicron, we find ourselves in a far better position now than we were last year. We have gained knowledge and experience from addressing other variants, such as delta, and we have far more science, tools, and treatment options available.”
How can I protect myself from the omicron variant?
“Vaccines remain our best line of defense against COVID,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.
“Our message is straightforward: The best thing you can do if you’re concerned about omicron is to get boosted if you were fully vaccinated before June, get your kids vaccinated,” Zients said. “Get yourself vaccinated if you haven’t already, and encourage your friends and family members to do the same.
Health leaders also recommend:
- Wearing a mask in public, indoor spaces or crowded outdoor places
- Avoiding large indoor gatherings
- Washing your hands frequently
- Stay home if you don’t feel well and get a COVID-19 test
- Getting a flu shot.
Contact Kristen Shamus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.