The omicron variant of COVID-19 appears to be more transmissible than any variant so far, including delta. “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, M.D., director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said on Tuesday in a media briefing. Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agrees. “Looking at what’s going on in South Africa, which has the most data, it looks like that its doubling time is clearly less and shorter, which means it transmits more rapidly than delta and very likely other variants,” he told CBC earlier this week.
For weeks, experts have been trying to figure out whether omicron spreads more rapidly than previous variants, whether it can evade immune protection brought on by vaccines, and whether the variant makes people sicker than previous iterations of the virus. On Wednesday, during a White House COVID-19 update, Dr. Fauci said that vaccine protection against infection has definitely diminished.
Dr. Fauci cited results from a preliminary analysis of data from South Africa showing that protection against omicron infection with two-dose vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer has dropped to 33%. “Obviously, this is significantly down, but there is the maintaining of a degree of protection against hospitalization,” Dr. Fauci said. (The vaccine was still 70% effective against hospitalization from omicron based on the data, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.) And, importantly, boosters may increase protection against symptomatic COVID-19 from omicron to about 75%, Dr. Fauci said. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster,” Dr. Fauci said.
The least clear aspect right now is whether omicron is less severe than previous variants, although so far the answer seems hopeful. “It looks like it might be that the level of severity is less with omicron than it is with delta,” Dr. Fauci told CBC, based on information from South Africa and the U.K. “So hopefully that holds true as we get more data.”
However, the WHO has cautioned against relying too much on a mild presentation of the virus. “Even if omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said at the Tuesday news briefing. “Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.”
Nearly 80 countries have reported cases of the omicron coronavirus variant to date—but it’s probably in most countries, according to the WHO. It’s already the dominant variant in South Africa, where scientists first discovered omicron, and it’s expected to be the dominant variant in London within days, according to the U.K.’s health secretary.
The omicron variant first sparked concerns back in November because it has over 50 mutations from the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, including at least 30 on its spike proteins, which help the virus enter the body’s cells, as SELF previously explained. When we create antibodies due to vaccination or prior infection, many of them are specifically targeted at the spike proteins—which means that if the spike proteins change, as they have with omicron, the virus may be better at evading our immune systems.
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