Omicron variant: How worried should we be?

omicron_largeEditor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 blog posts here, and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The day after Thanksgiving, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated a new COVID-19 variant, omicron, as a “variant of concern.”

The omicron variant was primarily identified by researchers in South Africa, and scientists in that country and across the world are working to gather data to understand more about the variant.

Until we have more data, it’s hard to know how much omicron will affect our efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic, but here’s what we know so far:

There’s still a lot to learn about omicron

To know how to react with any new public health measures, we need to determine …

- How infectious omicron is — how easily does it spread?
- How severe disease is in a person infected with omicron — does this variant produce more severe symptoms than previous dominant strains?
- Is the omicron variant resistant to vaccines we currently have? Will monoclonal antibody treatments and other in-development COVID-19 treatments be effective against omicron?

We don’t know if omicron is more transmissible than other variants

In South Africa, the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 with omicron has risen, but we’re not yet sure if that’s because omicron is especially transmissible or if it’s because of other factors that may be at play in South Africa. 

We don’t know if omicron causes more severe disease than other variants

Researchers in South Africa are seeing higher rates of hospitalization as omicron spreads, but we don’t yet know if that’s because omicron causes more severe disease or because more people are becoming infected overall. Symptoms of COVID-19 from omicron, however, so far seem to be similar to symptoms of COVID-19 from Delta and other variants.

We don’t know if omicron will become the dominant variant

We’ve seen other COVID-19 variants that were detected and then turned out not to take off. We’ll find out in the coming weeks if that’s the case with omicron, too, or if it has the potential to become the new predominant variant.

Can you get infected with the omicron variant after being vaccinated and/or having COVID-19 previously?

So far, data suggests that there could be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron, meaning people who have had COVID-19 before might be able to be reinfected more easily with this variant. It’s too early to tell for certain, though. 

We already know that, in general, it is possible to have COVID-19 more than once, and it’s possible to have a “breakthrough” case of COVID-19 — becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus after being vaccinated. However, if you have antibodies from vaccination, you’re less likely to have severe symptoms with COVID-19 infection.

Current COVID-19 tests are able to detect omicron

The typical PCR tests used widely to detect COVID-19 infection continue to detect infection with the omicron variant. 

We haven’t seen omicron in the U.S. yet

Omicron has been identified in North America, though — in Ontario, Canada — and it’s likely just a matter of time before it’s identified in the United States and even here in central Ohio. 

We’re able to identify particular COVID-19 virus strains by performing genomic sequencing on samples from positive PCR tests. While sequencing isn’t performed on every single positive PCR test everywhere, it is performed widely enough to help identify the spread of particular variants.

Vaccination continues to help prevent severe disease

Despite the presence of this new variant, we’re in a much better position than we were at this time last year — because of vaccines. The currently available COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective at preventing severe disease and reducing the spread of COVID-19. They remain one of the best methods we have to develop immunity and control the COVID-19 pandemic.

What we should do for now

The precautions we’ve been using throughout the pandemic remain our best defenses. Getting vaccinated — or getting your booster if you’re already vaccinated — is highly recommended. Face masks continue to help prevent disease transmission, both for the person who wears one and anyone around them, and we recommend wearing a face mask indoors around groups of other people, and in crowds where physically distancing isn’t possible.

Another concern is the simultaneous circulation of COVID-19 and influenza. Getting a flu shot is helpful in preventing illness in yourself and in preventing the spread of the flu to others. And, as always, please avoid others if you’re sick — stay home from work if possible. Face masks work well at preventing the most respiratory illnesses, including the flu. They’re not just for COVID-19. 

How worried should we be about the omicron variant? When will we know enough about it to react appropriately?

Within the next two weeks, we’re likely to learn some of the answers to those big questions about how infectious omicron is, whether it causes more severe disease and whether vaccines and available treatments are as effective against this variant. 

Anytime we don’t have answers, we have cautious concern. What we do know is that if you’re vaccinated against COVID-19, you have some protection against the variants identified so far. If you’ve received your COVID-19 booster, you’ll have even better protection.

We’re all tired of this pandemic. It’s affected each of us in our own, individual ways. But we can compare this omicron variant discovery to this time last year, when we were beginning to see the Delta variant. We’re much better positioned to face a new, potentially highly transmissible variant today, because of COVID-19 vaccines.

More about COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, and how to get one

Mohammad Mahdee Sobhanie is an infectious disease specialist and medical director of the Outpatient Parenteral Antibiotic Therapy Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. He’s also an assistant professor of infectious diseases and program director of the Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.