Last week, the World Health Organization designated Omicron as a COVID-19 variant of concern and ever since then, it has been making many headlines.
One of the most common questions on everyone’s lips has been whether or not the vaccines currently available are still efficient against the scary new mutation.
And since the Delta variant has been the main variant pretty much everywhere for months now, it makes sense to know how the Omicron compares to it as well!
As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Delta variant is currently responsible for 99.9 percent of all cases of COVID in the United States.
But in spite of this, experts think the Omicron features a couple of mutations that might make it very much able to take over for the Delta variant.
Last week, the WHO stated that an abrupt rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first discovered, coincided with the detection of it which suggests that it is, potentially capable of dethroning the Delta variant as the dominant strain of the virus.
At this point in time, there isn’t much that we know about it but here are some pieces of information we do know and which you might want to know as well.
How Does the Omicron Compare to the Delta Variant?
Well, first of all, they are both variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Infectious disease specialist and a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, William Schaffner, M.D., explains that “Every time this virus enters a new person, it multiples millions of times. That gives it the opportunity to mutate. When that happens, occasionally you get a variant.”
Thankfully, most variants are nothing more but dead-end mutations, which means that they don’t change much, but “every once in a while you get a mutation or a whole series of mutations that change the character of the virus. It’s like discovering you have a new cousin. You can see it’s related to your family but it has its own personality and characteristics.”
According to CDC, the Delta variant is more than twice as transmissible as all the variants before it and is also able to cause more severe sickness in unvaccinated patients.
As for the Omicron variant, WHO explains that it has a “large number of mutations,” and also appears to be more likely to reinfect individuals already recovered from a previous COVID-19 infection.
Dr. Schaffner explains that “Many of those mutations involve the actual spike protein, which is the critical part of the virus that allows it to enter the cells of our body and make us sick.”
For now, however, it’s still not sure whether the Omicron is just as contagious as Delta or if it’s even more so.
Is Omicron more dangerous than Delta?
Professor and the chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, Thomas Russo, M.D., stresses that the answer is simple – “we don’t know.”
Still, he mentions that Omicron features a large number of mutations on the spike protein which is what the virus uses to grab and infect a patient’s cells.
“The reason people are nervous is because of those mutations. But are the mutations setting things up to go in a bad direction or will they cancel each other out? We just don’t know yet,” the specialist explains.
Senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., seems to agree!
He says that “Omicron has some unique mutations and other mutations that were found in other variants, but not in Delta. There’s not enough information to say whether this variant is worse than Delta. It may be that both are handled by our vaccines when it comes to preventing serious illness.”
What About the Symptoms Caused by the Two Variants?
The symptoms of COVID-19 infections are generally consistent, no matter the variant.
The CDC lists them as:
– Chills and fever
– Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
– Muscle or body aches
– Sore throat
– Loss of smell and/or taste
– Runny nose or congestion
– Nausea or vomiting
It is clear at this point that all the data about Omicron is merely preliminary since it’s in its beginning stages but one doctor who has treated patients infected with it shared via the BBC that they experienced “extremely mild symptoms.”
Angelique Coetzee, M.D., chair of the South African Medical Association, went on to also tell the BBC that the symptoms were a little different.
“It actually started with a male patient who is around the age of 33 … and he said to me that he has just [been] extremely tired for the past days and he has these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache.”
The patient also experienced “scratchy throat” without coughing or the loss of smell and taste.
Upon testing the man and the rest of his family for COVID-19, it was determined that they were all infected.
During that same day, the specialist also saw more patients with similar symptoms.
“What we are seeing clinically in South Africa—and remember I’m at the epicenter of this where I’m practicing—is extremely mild, for us [these are] mild cases. We haven’t admitted anyone, I’ve spoken to other colleagues of mine and they give the same picture,” she said.
Dr. Coetzee also noted that most of them were young and did not suffer from any other illnesses.
“Before we can judge the clinical spectrum of illness, it is important to get a bigger sample size, including those who are at higher risk for severe disease. But it is reassuring that those that are being hospitalized tend to be unvaccinated. There is not enough clinical data to be able to say anything definitive about how symptoms may differ with this variant. But I suspect they will all still be in the same range,” says Dr. Adalja.
Are the Available Vaccines Effective Against the Omicron Variant?
Dr. Russo says that “Omicron shares similar mutations to the Beta and Gamma variants, which are more resistant to vaccination” which could be a reason for concern.
It could also be why Moderna’s CEO predicted that the current vaccines might not be as effective against this new variant.
Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times that “There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is on the same level…we had with Delta.”
Bancel also predicted that there would be a “material drop” in the efficacy of the vaccine but that “I just do not know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I have talked to…are like, ‘This is not going to be good.'”
With that being said, Omicron seems to mainly affect unvaccinated people, which is also seemingly why it started in South Africa since their vaccination rates are low.
Dr. Russo says that getting the booster shot should help, being the best protection we have at this point.
“Booster shots give you a 10-fold increase in neutralizing antibodies. Will that buffer be enough so that we’ll still have a significant degree of protection? We don’t know yet.”
Regardless, Dr. Adalja mentioned that the Omicron variant may still be able to evade the protection created by the vaccine to a certain extent.
“Of all the variants, this is the one that seems to come closest to the threshold for a need for a reformulation [of the vaccine]—if it spreads more widely and causes a problem.”
With that being said, some new vaccines are in development already.
While at this time, it’s still not clear whether they are needed or not, vaccine makers have been working on new ones that would be able to combat the new Omicron variant.
Paul Burton, the Chief Medical Officer for Moderna told NBC News that they are currently working on a new vaccine, while Pfizer and BioNTech also suggested that they could create a new shot targeting Omicron in no more than 6 weeks.
The companies also stressed that, if needed, initial batches of the vaccines would be available for shipping within 100 days.
In a press release, Johnson & Johnson confirmed that they could develop a vaccine targeting Omicron as well – if the situation asks for it.
It’s important to note that doctors don’t yet know a lot about it, however, so it’s still not sure whether it will spread and take over the Delta variant or just end up fizzling out.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re going to be OK. I don’t think the sky is falling just yet,” Dr. Russo said reassuringly.