On Thanksgiving, reports emerged that a new concerning variant of Covid was identified in southern Africa. Later named Omicron by the World Health Organization, the variant has since been identified in several locations around the world, including England, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, and Hong Kong. It has not yet been detected in the U.S., but this may be because America doesn’t as frequently test for specific variants of Covid compared to some other countries. According to many experts, there’s a good chance it’s already here.
So why is this variant especially concerning? First, there is evidence that it may be more transmissible than previous versions of the coronavirus. One important data point in this regard is the variant’s rapid rate of spread in South Africa. But it will take more data collection over time to confirm if Omicron is genuinely more contagious. A second concern is that our current vaccines may be less effective at protecting us against the Omicron variant. This is based on mutations in the genes that code for the spike protein the vaccines neutralize. If Omicron’s spike protein is different previous variants, our current vaccines might bind to it less effectively and thus be less successful at preventing the virus from entering our cells. Experts think it’s unlikely Omicron will completely evade or escape our current vaccines. According to reports from vaccine manufacturers we should know how well current vaccines work against Omicron in around 2 weeks.
There is no solid evidence at this point on the question of whether Omicron causes a different severity of disease compared to other Covid variants.
Even if the vaccines are less effective against Omicron, it’s not like we’re back to square one. First, again, there is good reason to believe our current vaccines they will still offer some measure of protection against Omicron. Indeed, booster doses of the current vaccines can, at least for a time, elicit such sky-high levels of antibody that they can broadly withstand a mutated virus, even if the antibodies aren’t targeting the specific viral proteins as well. So that’s more reason to get a booster ASAP if you haven’t already.
It’s also important to remember we now have knowledge we didn’t have when the pandemic began. We know transmission is very low risk outdoors. We know masks, of which we have abundant supply, work. We know improving ventilation through opening windows and using air filtration devices lowers transmission indoors.
We also have tools we didn’t have when at the outset of the pandemic. We have home tests to know if we’re contagious with Covid before we gather with family and friends. We know how to more effectively treat Covid in the hospital with meds like dexamethasone and tocilizumab. For outpatient therapy, even if current monoclonal antibodies don’t work against this new variant, inhaled steroids and fluvoxamine will still help, along with the antiviral medicines from Pfizer and Merck when they become available in likely the next 1-2 months. If Omicron is resistant to our currently available monoclonal antibodies, they would likely be able to be updated to target this new variant. Most importantly, the mRNA platform for creating vaccines is versatile, allowing updated vaccines that target the Omicron variant to be created and available in a much shorter time than it took to create the current vaccines. I have read reliable experts estimate that, if necessary, vaccines updated for Omicron could available in the spring. One exciting possibility being researched is a vaccine that would protect against all possible variants of SARS-CoV-2.
So what should you do now? Get vaccinated if you haven’t already. Get your booster 6 months after your second shot of Pfizer or Moderna or 2 months after your first shot of J&J. Wear a mask in indoor crowded spaces, especially if you don’t know if people around you are vaccinated or symptomatic. If gathering around a person more vulnerable to a bad case of Covid, such as the immunocompromised or elderly, consider having everybody take a home Covid test beforehand to help rule out an asymptomatic infection.
The emergence of the Omicron variant shows why we need to vaccinate the entire world. If a virus is circulating at high levels anywhere, this increases the chance a more challenging variant will occur. And in our connected world, a dangerous variant is likely to travel around the globe quickly. We’re all in this together.