Today we're going to break down the Omicron variant, the new variant of COVID-19. We'll talk about what it is, when, where and how it was discovered. We'll also talk about the symptoms of the Omicron COVID variant, and then we'll break down some very important questions, and we'll talk about why it is concerning. Is it more transmissible, meaning is it more contagious? We'll also discuss is it more virulent? Is it more deadly? Is the Omicron variant more likely to cause hospitalizations and death?
We'll also talk about immunity. Is the Omicron variant likely to evade immunity? Will it make it so that our current vaccinations do not work? And if you've already been infected, if you've already had the COVID-19 disease, will the Omicron variant still make you sick? Can you be easily reinfected? We'll break all of that down. And then most importantly, we'll talk about what you should do. How can you protect yourself and your loved ones from the Omicron variant?
What Is The Omicron COVID Variant?
The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, and the Health Minister of South Africa announced its existence on Thanksgiving Day, 2021. On that following Friday, the World Health Organization declared that this variant was indeed a variant of concern, and it was named the Omicron variant. So how was it identified in South Africa?
Now, just because it was identified in South Africa first does not mean that that is where it first developed. It just means that South Africa has excellent science and excellent genomic sequencing, and so they were able to discover it first. In their labs, as they tested people for COVID-19 and actually went through doing the genomic sequencing, they discovered that there was indeed a new variant. And briefly, I'll describe how they did that.
What Is Genomic Sequencing?
Genomic sequencing is when scientists examine and decode a virus in order to determine exactly what mutations or deletions exist. And so in the case of the Omicron variant, they started noticing that on that spike protein, that spike protein that we've been talking about ever since the beginning of this pandemic, that there were certain changes or mutations, and there were some additions, and there were some deletions.
In other words, it became concerning. It looked as though the virus had changed to the point that it could actually be more contagious or more transmissible. And what's really great about the South African scientists is that they already really had a wonderful scientific system set up through their historical research of HIV and tuberculosis. And so they're actually to be commended for identifying the Omicron variant, and beyond that, they were transparent and they let the rest of the world know.
So in addition to what the South African scientists discovered in their labs, as far as discovering that there was a variant, they also started looking at clinical data, and the cases in South Africa had started to rise. In fact, at one point, the cases in South Africa had quadrupled in just four days. And the dominant variant was at that point discovered to be Omicron. 74% of the cases at that time were of the Omicron COVID variant. So this is why it is a variant of concern.
It looked like the Omicron variant was outcompeting other COVID-19 variants. So initially, the variant was discovered in South Africa and other countries in Southern Africa, but very, very soon, as all scientists and physicians could have predicted, it started spreading throughout the world.
Omicron Variant Symptoms
What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant? Now, remembering that science is dynamic and what symptoms are initially could change over time, keeping that in mind, the initial symptoms of the Omicron variant are actually rather mild compared to some of the other symptoms of COVID-19 that have been seen.
Patients complain of sore throats or scratchy throats, some malaise or just feeling a little bit weak, not feeling well, and having some fever. But generally, the symptoms have been reported as being mild to moderate.
Is This New Variant Cause For Concern?
Now, to answer the question, what's the big deal? Is the Omicron variant a big deal? Well, whether or not it is a big deal really depends on three key factors:
- Is it more transmissible?
- Is it more virulent?
- Can the Omicron variant escape the immune system?
Is The Omicron Variant More Transmissible?
Already, we see that there are over 30 mutations on the spike protein and over 50 mutations in general. When you have mutations in a virus, oftentimes the mutations that last, the ones that we see over and over again, the ones that start to dominate, those are the ones that tend to make the virus more fit.
So if the virus is more fit and able to be transmitted more easily, then it's more contagious. So just given the mutations, just scientifically looking at the genomic sequencing, the Omicron variant appears to be more transmissible. And then in looking at real-time data, the fact that already in South Africa, the Omicron variant has become the dominant strain, then it does appear to be more transmissible. Is that concerning? Yes.
Is The Omicron Variant More Virulent?
Is it more deadly? Is it likely to cause more hospitalizations and death? Well, again, science is dynamic, so this could change, but at least in the initial presentation, the Omicron variant did not appear to be more deadly. People were getting ill for sure, but they did not seem to be dying very rapidly or very sick. This is not the final answer, but that virulent piece, that deadly piece is a question that will always have to be asked in order for us to understand whether or not the Omicron variant is really a big deal.
Does The Omicron Variant Escape The Immune System?
This is such an important question because when you build up immunity from a virus, you know, whether you've had the natural infection from COVID-19 or you've been vaccinated, when you get your immunity, you have certain antibodies that attack that spike protein, and you have other parts of your immune system.
You have T-cells, and you have all kinds of ways to protect yourself. We already know that people who have natural immunity, meaning not vaccinated, but they've had a previous COVID-19 infection, they do have a certain amount of immunity. We know that when people have been infected with COVID-19, where they've had natural immunity, they do for sure have some antibody protection against COVID-19, but we have scientific data to support that natural immunity is not as robust and long-lasting as the immunity from the vaccinations.
The initial data coming out from South African shows us that there have been several waves of the COVID-19 infection. And at the time that the Omicron variant was identified, the amount of fully vaccinated people in South Africa was quite low. Well, most of the people infected with the Omicron variant initially were unvaccinated people. And here's the key. Many of those unvaccinated people had already had the COVID-19 infection but still got Omicron.
And some of those people have been infected with COVID-19 at least two separate times, and they still develop a third infection with the Omicron variant. So what that tells us is that the Omicron variant is likely able to evade natural immunity. Now, is this just because that natural immunity has waned, or is it because the Omicron variant is just not responsive to that immunity? Again, these are questions that remain to be seen, but important questions as we determine whether or not Omicron is a big deal.
Additionally, as the Omicron variant has spread throughout the world, including the United States, we've discovered that there are patients who have already been vaccinated, who have developed the Omicron variant. So again, that is the concern. Is the Omicron variant able to evade our immunity, even immunity with vaccinations? It's possible, but hear me out, hear me out because there are certainly still things that we can do to protect ourselves.
How To Protect Yourself From The Omicron Variant
So how can you protect yourself from the Omicron variant? Should you panic? Should you just give up? No, you shouldn't, absolutely not.
Right now we know that vaccinations are still our best tool. So let's just take a look at vaccines. Even though the vaccinations that you've received, if you have a vaccine, those vaccines were first made to go against the original COVID-19 strain and the Alpha variant, and the wild variant. Those weren't made to go against the Delta variant.
Yet we found through many, many studies that the original vaccines still offered us great protection from being hospitalized or from dying from Delta. What does that mean? Even when you have a lot of antibodies, even if they're not exactly matched for a certain variant, the more antibodies you have from COVID-19, especially from being vaccinated, the more protected you will be.
And so being vaccinated, at least with your initial series of the messenger RNA vaccines, if you're in the United States or the Johnson and Johnson, plus a second dose in two months of the Johnson and Johnson, if you're in the United States, this will give you greater protection than if you're not vaccinated.
Also, if you get the booster, meaning if you get an additional shot, if it's been more than six months since you got your second dose of a messenger RNA vaccine, the Moderna or the Pfizer, then it is recommended that you get a booster. Why, because getting a booster shot will elevate your antibody response even higher than it was elevated after your second dose of the messenger RNA vaccine. And the more antibodies you have, the more you're able to overwhelm an infection, even from a COVID-19 variant. So that will put you in a better position not to get sick and certainly not to get very sick or hospitalized or die. That's just some armor that you can have to protect yourself.
Wear Face Masks
At one point, people got very comfortable as we saw that cases were going down, hospitalizations were going down in the United States, and mask mandates started to kind of slip away. But we do know that wearing face masks, especially KN95 masks, will offer some protection from getting COVID-19, even the Omicron variant, and from spreading COVID-19. And so even if you're vaccinated, when you're indoors, especially when you don't know someone's vaccination status, or you're around an immunocompromised person or an elderly person, you should put on your mask.
Practice Social Distancing
You should also socially distance yourself when appropriate. If you've already started getting back into the world, going to indoor concerts and games with no masks, and screaming and cheering and just being very comfortable, stop. Stop doing all of that. Try to avoid very crowded situations. And if you have to be in a crowded situation, wear your mask.
Maintain Good Hygiene
The other advice that's always going to be good advice is to maintain good hygiene. Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer. All of these things will help, not only against the Omicron variant potentially, but also against some of the other pathogens that are still here.
The other way that you can protect yourself and your loved ones is by testing. Now, the PCR is still the gold standard test, but now we have many home tests. We have these rapid antigen tests. And what you can do is, especially if you're symptomatic, you can test yourself, and if indeed you test positive, you can self-quarantine to protect others from getting the virus.
And if you're in a situation where you've become more social, you have people over at your home, or you're visiting people, visiting family, then what you'll want to do is you can do a home test before you get there, just to make sure that you protect everyone.
And if you're the person who is hosting an event, you can require that people take a rapid antigen home test once they get to your home as well. Doing this testing will just allow us to isolate or quarantine people who test positive so that this Omicron variant has a less likely chance of spreading rapidly.
So these are the highlights of what the Omicron COVID variant is. Again, science is ever-changing, science is dynamic, but the most important thing to do is to take advantage of the resources you have. Right now, we have the COVID-19 vaccinations, which have been proven to be very safe and effective historically. Let's go ahead and armor ourselves by being vaccinated.
Again, use mitigation factors and continue to follow guidelines such as the CDC guidelines and advice from your physicians. If you found this information to be helpful and informative, please share it with the people you care about.