Omicron is the latest variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. Like Delta, it’s been designated by the World Health Organisation as a “Variant of Concern” (more severe than a “Variant of Interest”). Also like Delta, it’s moving fast. Cases spiked in South Africa recently, and cases of infection with the variant have since been found in New York, Hawaii, California, Minnesota, and Colorado.
So, yes, Omicron is something public health officials are concerned about. But it hasn’t totally changed the rules of the game around COVID. The WHO still recommends masks, ventilation, distancing, and vaccines as our best tools against it.
How bad is the Omicron variant?
Omicron gained public health officials’ notice because its numbers rose quickly in a few southern African countries, and because it has several genetic mutations that could be bad news, but we don’t know yet how bad. You’re not hearing so much about it because it’s disastrously bad; you’re hearing about it because it’s concerning and it’s new.
(This, by the way, is a good lesson in why we don’t name diseases or variants after places: there was a different “South African variant” earlier in the pandemic, no relation to this one. And Omicron probably didn’t originate in South Africa; it was just researched most thoroughly by that country’s scientists.)
According to the World Health Organisation:
- Omicron might be more transmissible than other variants, but we’re not sure yet.
- Omicron might cause more severe disease than other variants, but once again, we’re still not sure.
- “Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.” We don’t know yet if vaccines have a reduced efficacy against mild disease.
- COVID tests can still detect Omicron.
- Corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blockers — two of the treatments that are used for COVID — still work. We don’t know about other treatments.
- According to “preliminary evidence,” prior infection may not protect very well against a re-infection with Omicron.
What should I do?
Our current tools still work well, as far as we know. Vaccines are particularly important. It seems that current vaccines still protect very well against severe disease and death, and it’s likely they will still protect against less-severe disease from Omicron. (There are also still plenty of Delta and other variant viruses out there.)
In fact, the new variant arguably makes vaccination even more important. If you’ve had COVID before and figured that you’re probably immune, you may be more susceptible to Omicron than to previous variants. And vaccines protect you and the people around you for all the reasons they did before. Remember, vaccines are now available for everyone aged 5 and older, so get your shots if you haven’t already.