What we know about omicron

  • The omicron variant is concerning because it has a lot more mutations than other widespread strains.
  • Omicron was first found in Philadelphia on Dec. 3.
  • Because it's so new, there's a lot that we don't know yet.
  • Scientists and doctors emphasize that getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself against any strain of COVID-19 — including omicron.
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The new, concerning COVID-19 variant, omicron, is spreading just in time to disrupt holiday parties and family gatherings.

But in televised remarks Nov. 29, President Joe Biden said the new variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

Susan Weiss, a microbiologist and codirector of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine’s Center for Research on Coronaviruses and Other Emerging Pathogens, echoed the president’s remarks, encouraging people to get vaccinated and practice safety to protect themselves from getting sick.

“It’s not a monster, it’s just another variant,” said Weiss, who spoke with The Inquirer about what people should know about omicron.

What is the omicron variant?

Omicron is a COVID-19 variant that was first identified in South Africa in November. It is considered a variant of concern by the World Health Organization because it has potential to be highly transmissible and may be better able than other variants to infect people who have been vaccinated or have natural immunity from a prior illness.

Do the vaccines protect against omicron?

Scientists and doctors emphasize that getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself against any strain of COVID-19 — including the omicron variant. A preliminary lab study released by Pfizer on Wednesday found that its two-shot COVID-19 vaccine offered some protection against severe illness from omicron but not enough to prevent people from being infected. A third dose, or booster, of the Pfizer vaccine increased protection 25-fold and was able to neutralize the virus in the lab study. More research is needed, including analysis of real-world effectiveness, to understand how omicron responds to the vaccine, Pfizer said. There have not yet been completed studies on the effectiveness of the vaccines by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson against omicron.

Has anyone died from omicron?

WHO has not reported any deaths due to the omicron variant. So far, there is no evidence to suggest that omicron causes more severe illness than the delta variant. South African doctors have reported more mild symptoms in their patients, a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, Reuters reported. But most cases have been among adults under age 40, who typically experience less severe illness than older adults, which is why scientists say it’s too soon to know for sure whether omicron may cause more severe illness for some people, particularly those with weakened immune systems.

Is omicron more dangerous than the original strain of COVID-19?

Not necessarily. According to early WHO reports, omicron appears to be more contagious than previous variants. South African scientists say omicron is spreading twice as quickly as delta in that country, the New York Times reported. But it’s important to keep in mind that even if the variant is more contagious, that does not mean it will be more deadly.

Weiss explained it like this: A virus’ goal is to multiply and spread as much as possible and self-selects for mutations that help it do this. Viruses spread most effectively when the people they infect are still able to go about their daily activities — going different places and interacting with different people. Viruses that make people so ill they can’t leave home or worse, that kill them, don’t get as much opportunity to spread.

Which states and countries have omicron cases?

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health announced Dec. 3 that a Philadelphia resident has tested positive for the omicron variant. Omicron was first identified in the United States in California, among an individual who had recently traveled to South Africa. As of Dec. 7, omicron cases have been confirmed in 19 states, including New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Ohio. Omicron also has been identified in more than 50 countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

What are the symptoms of omicron?

Scientists and doctors are still learning about this new variant, but WHO said Nov. 28 that early data suggest symptoms in those infected with the omicron variant are similar to those from infections with the original COVID-19 strain and delta variant. Most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, chills, shortness of breath, cough, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, and loss of smell or taste.

Can I get the omicron variant if I already had COVID-19?

Preliminary evidence suggests that people who already had COVID-19 (and have some level of natural immunity) could contract the omicron variant more easily than other variants, according to WHO. One reason omicron is a “variant of concern” is because scientists worry that its high number of mutations will make it better able to infect people, even if they’ve been vaccinated or recovered from a COVID-19 illness. Scientists and doctors emphasize that getting vaccinated is still the best way to protect yourself against any strain of COVID-19 — including omicron. Vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 typically experience more mild symptoms and are able to avoid hospitalization.

What can I do to protect myself from omicron?

Get vaccinated, get a booster shot if it’s been six months since you were fully vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines -- or two months after the single-dose J&J vaccine -- wear a mask (especially in indoor public areas), and exercise caution in crowds.

How did omicron get its name?

COVID-19 variants are given Greek alphabet letter names in the order in which they’re identified. Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. The delta variant is named for the Greek alphabet’s fourth letter. The variants in between those two have not attracted much attention because they haven’t spread as much. (In assigning names to variants, WHO skipped the two letters before omicron — nu, because it sounds like the word new, and xi, because it is a common last name.)

Can I still have my family over for the holidays?

In remarks last month, Biden said he did not expect to restore the interstate travel restrictions that were in place in 2020 and would not recommend that states reinstate other lockdown restrictions, such as capacity limits for indoor gatherings. Those types of restrictions were necessary to protect people last year because vaccines were not yet widely available, but are no longer necessary, so long as people get vaccinated, get a booster, and continue wearing masks.

Can I travel internationally?

A travel restriction to the United States from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, or Zimbabwe took effect last month. Biden said he does not expect to expand international air travel restrictions. For Americans traveling by air, the CDC recommends being fully vaccinated before flying, avoiding trips if you are sick, wearing a mask when indoors, and checking whether your airline requires proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test.

» READ MORE: What the omicron variant means for your holiday travel

Are variants of COVID-19 the new normal?

Not necessarily. Viruses constantly mutate in an effort to find a way to spread more efficiently. The more a virus replicates, the more variants it can create. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent the virus from replicating. Not only does vaccination protect you from contracting the virus, it prevents the virus from spreading and evolving into new strains.