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What Should I Know about the Omicron Variant?

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Here’s what we know so far about omicron — plus tips for keeping yourself safe as it spreads.
December 27, 2021 ★  | | |

A new coronavirus variant has quickly gone from unknown to one of concern, putting the world on high alert and snarling global travel in the process, says AARP’s recent article entitled “3 Things to Know About the Omicron Variant.”

Omicron has been linked to a rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa and has since shown up in the United States and 20 other countries. Scientists are racing to learn more about the new strain, including how quickly it spreads and whether it can cause more severe disease.

Viruses change and evolve as they circulate, so variations of the original version are expected. “You might think of it as a new cousin in the family,” says William Schaffner, M.D., a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Omicron, however, has what top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, M.D., calls “a very unusual constellation of changes," compared to previous coronavirus strains. Omicron has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein alone, and around 50 in total. “This is not delta,” Fauci emphasized in a recent news briefing. “It's something different.” Experts say that it’s too soon to know what all these mutations mean, but studies should provide some answers very quickly.

One issue is that the variant could be more contagious. Fauci said that some of Omicron’s mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility (meaning it may spread more easily), which could be why South Africa saw a dramatic surge in new cases of COVID-19 after a recent lull.

“They quickly realized that a large number of these new cases were not due to the delta variant, as had been the case earlier in the year, but were more due to a new variant that had not been seen before,” he says. What’s more, people who already had COVID-19 seem to be getting reinfected with Omicron more easily, the World Health Organization notes.

Another concern among experts is that all of the changes on Omicron’s spike protein could make it more resistant to current COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, since these therapies target that unique feature. Experts are also trying to understand whether Omicron causes more severe symptoms than other forms of the virus — a big worry for those already at high risk for complications from COVID.

Public health experts say Omicron's arrival in the U.S. doesn't change the best measures of protection — the ones they have been encouraging all along. A booster shot will enhance your protection against COVID — even if it turns out that Omicron diminishes a degree of vaccine effectiveness.

They recommend that you get a flu shot. If Omicron does turn out to be a more virulent version of the virus, the “last thing we want is a twindemic — an outbreak of COVID and an outbreak of flu at the same time — both hitting our hospitals simultaneously,” Schaffner says.

Reference: AARP (Dec. 1, 2021) “3 Things to Know About the Omicron Variant”

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