What we do and don\’t know about the Omicron Covid-19 variant

Omicron, the new variant of COVID-19, has gripped the front pages ever since the World Health Organization labeled it a variant of concern last Friday, but what does Omicron mean for travel, the upcoming holidays, and the pandemic as a whole? Here’s what you need to know:

  • What is Omicron? Omicron is the new variant of Covid-19. It was first detected and identified in South Africa and given the designation B.1.1.529. The WHO classified Omicron as a variant of concern on November 26, 2021.
  • What is a variant of concern? All viruses constantly mutate, and Covid-19 is no different. Most of these mutations are harmless, but some could lead to the virus becoming more transmissible, more deadly, or both. WHO classifies some new variants as “variants of interest” (VOI) or “variants of concern” (VOC). VOI’s are variants that may lead to increased transmission, disease, or death, so they are monitored closely. A VOC is a variant that has been demonstrated to cause increased transmission, disease, or death. WHO says the decision to name Omicron as a VOC “was based on the evidence presented to the TAG-VE [WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution] that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.”
  • What makes Omicron different? The Omicron variant has over 30 mutations in a key spike protein, reports CNN. The changes to this key spike protein may impact how efficiently it binds with human cells, which could mean it spreads more easily than Delta or is able to better evade vaccines.
  • Is Omicron more transmissible? There’s some early evidence that it may be, but increased transmissibility has not been proven yet.
  • Does Omicron lead to more severe disease or is it deadlier? That’s something scientists don’t have the answer to yet.
  • Where has Omicron spread to? At the time of this writing, Bloomberg says Omicron has spread to the following countries: South Africa, Botswana, Germany, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Isreal, Italy, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Australia, Austria, Canada, Switzerland, France, and Portugal. However, Omicron is almost certainly in other countries already.
  • Is Omicron in the United States? Omicron has not been detected in the United States yet, but there is a high likelihood the variant has already been introduced in the country. We may hear at any time that Omicron has been detected in the U.S.
  • How will Omicron affect travel? It’s already affecting travel. Many countries have banned travelers from South Africa and other southern African nations, reports Reuters. Israel has also effectively shut its borders again, and Japan has closed its borders to foreign travelers, too.
  • How will Omicron impact the upcoming holidays? That’s unknown at this point. If Omicron is found to be as bad as some fear, some countries may implement lockdowns or more travel restrictions over the holidays.
  • How will Omicron impact the overall pandemic? That, too, is unknown at this point.
  • Are the current vaccines effective against Omicron? Again, that’s not something scientists can answer at this point. However, Dr. Anthony Fauci said our current vaccines are likely to offer “a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID” (via Reuters).
  • What are the symptoms of Omicron? Again, no official symptoms are known. However, as CNBC reports, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who first alerted the world to Omicron, says the symptoms she’s seen in patients are “unusual” compared to Delta and are “extremely mild.” Coetzee noted reports of body aches, headaches, tiredness, and scratchy throats–but no reports of loss of smell or taste or bouts of coughing, which are often symptoms of Delta.
  • When will we have definitive answers about Omicron? Most scientists and governments say it will be a few more weeks before we have more certainty over the characteristics of Omicron and what it means for the pandemic as a whole. As Reuters reports, on Sunday Dr. Anthony Fauci told President Biden definitive answers will take two more weeks.
  • How can I stay safe from Omicron? For now, the World Health Organization says people should continue using the best practices they have for delta and other variants: social distance, wear masks, get vaccinated.

The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of #COVID19 – incl. Omicron, Delta:
– Keep a safe distance
– Wear a well-fitting mask
– Open windows; avoid poorly ventilated, crowded spaces
– Clean hands
– Cough, sneeze into a bent elbow/tissue
– Get vaccinated pic.twitter.com/71zYJyitSu

— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 28, 2021