The key message about the new coronavirus variant named omicron is clear: prepare, but don’t panic.
The variant, first detected in South Africa, has reached several countries, including the U.S., where omicron accounts for approximately 59% of all new COVID-19 infections. However, it is not yet known the severity of illness the new variant might cause.
“A lot of information is pending about this variant,” says Dr. Hai Shao, a board-certified infectious disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “It’s only a matter of time before we see more cases in the U.S. and learn more.”
Shortly after Thanksgiving, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated omicron as a variant of concern and later warned it is spreading like no other previous coronavirus variant. Variants are labeled "of concern" based on having changes that could impact global public health. Experts report that as long as there are large numbers of unvaccinated people — whether due to personal choice or lack of access to vaccines — new variants will continue to evolve.
“This variant is considered a variant of concern by the World Health Organization because of the number of mutations identified,” Dr. Shao says. “While the delta variant has 10 mutations compared to the original virus, the omicron variant has 22 more — an eye-popping change.”
What mutations mean
According to Dr. Shao, more mutations can mean that the virus has improved its ability to replicate and survive, and that its transmissibility and pathogenicity — its ability to lead to illness — are increased. Additionally, the effectiveness of current treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies against COVID-19, and current COVID-19 vaccines could be affected.
The California Department of Public Health reports that the mutations are in important areas of the virus that impact infectiousness and the ability for immune systems to protect from infection. However, it is not yet known if the omicron variant causes more severe COVID-19 illness than other variants — though all coronavirus variants are capable of causing severe illness or death — or how it might impact a person’s response to treatment.
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, current findings indicate the efficacy of the two-dose vaccination series from Pfizer is affected by omicron, but that it still provides protection against severe disease and hospitalization. A recent study found that a booster dose of the same vaccine increases protection against symptomatic disease caused by the omicron variant to 75%. Preliminary research has resulted in very similar findings for the Moderna vaccine and booster.
Rapid response to the new variant
While there are many uncertainties surrounding this new variant, state and federal agencies have wasted no time in implementing measures in response to omicron. These measures include:
- Using genomic sequencing — the analysis of virus samples taken from infected people — to detect the presence of the variant throughout the U.S.
- Having the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work with local agencies to gather and share information related to the variant.
- Increasing COVID-19 testing at airports for U.S. citizens and legal residents returning from certain countries.
“All the measures being put in place are to buy time to react to a new surge of COVID-19 cases due to omicron,” Dr. Shao says. “We are utilizing this time to prepare and test how the immune system can fight the new variant.”
Protect yourself against omicron
Additionally, there are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from becoming ill due to the omicron variant.
Dr. Shao shares these eight tips:
- Get vaccinated — all people age 5 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
- Get a vaccine booster if eligible.
- Follow the renewed California requirement to wear a face mask in indoor public locations, regardless of vaccination status.
- Avoid crowded indoor locations.
- Hold all gatherings outdoors.
- Social distance from others when possible.
- Get tested for COVID-19 if you experience common COVID-19 symptoms, even if mild, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
- Isolate from others if you are sick.
According to Dr. Shao, testing is crucial with a new variant. And it is believed that the currently available PCR and antigen tests should be effective in identifying infection due to the omicron variant. “There is no evidence to suggest our current testing methods will have difficulty detecting this particular variant,” he says.
If you test positive for COVID-19, Dr. Shao recommends you follow CDC guidance and isolate for 10 days.
For the news media: To speak with a Sharp expert about the omicron variant, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.
This article was updated January 3, 2022, to reflect revised estimates of omicron prevalence in the U.S.