It’s almost 2022, and while much of the world has taken steps toward protecting its citizens from the Coronavirus, getting vaccinated, and masking up, there’s still much to be learned about the Covid-19 pandemic.
As we've noted in previous blog posts, several variants have emerged from the novel initial version of SARS-CoV-2 that have made it more difficult for our immune systems to neutralize the virus. We've gathered the most recent details and updates about the latest variant to help you better understand national and global events as they unfold.
How the Omicron Variant was Discovered
So, here’s how the Omicron variant was first discovered. On November 24, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that a new Variant of Concern (VOC) had emerged in Botswana and South Africa. The variant, designated SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, was an offshoot of a pre-existing variant. By November 26, the WHO changed its name to B.1.1.529 Omicron.
Immediate detection and tracing efforts in the United States revealed that on December 1, 2021, that this variant had already breached the borders.
The reason the WHO labeled this variant a VOC is because scientists in Africa found that it mutated from a previous variant faster than expected and contained more mutations than any other variant. Many of the mutations also seemed to help improve its ability to escape immune system antibodies. On top of that, scientists around the world have since observed a concerning higher-than-normal number of breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals. Scientists in South Africa have also noted a higher-than-normal number of reinfections.
How Contagious is the Omicron Variant?
The Omicron variant is extremely contagious. It is approximately 2-3x more contagious compared to the delta variant. In the UK, scientists have found that people who are infected with Omicron are much more likely to infect others in their household compared to previous versions of coronavirus.
The omicron cases tend to double in every 2 days which indicates that Omicron will quickly become the dominant variant within the country. This doubling of case numbers is now being seen in the United States and scientists who track case numbers are seeing the Omicron variant doubling every 1.5-3 days domestically. Due to this, many expect this variant to become the dominant strain within the country in early 2022.
How does the Omicron Variant Spread?
As with other COVID-19 variants, it spreads in respiratory droplets exhaled from a person infected with the virus. Prior to its emergence, scientists believed Delta and Delta Plus to be the most contagious variants. Initial research from Africa suggests that this variant spreads more easily and faster than any previous version of this virus. On a positive note, the Omicron variant appears to cause less severe illness.
That said, in the most recent update by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dated December 8, 2021, the nation's top public health agency stated, "We don’t yet know how easily it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, or how well available vaccines and medications work against it." and "[It] likely will spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and how easily [it] spreads compared to Delta remains unknown."
How Effective Are Vaccines?
Scientists are rapidly attempting to answer this question. While clinical trials are only just beginning, scientists have been performing vaccine effectiveness studies in petri dishes. They take the blood of those who have been vaccinated and evaluate how well the antibodies respond to the Omicron variant. In two separate studies by German and South African scientists, researchers found that current vaccines can't stop the spread of this variant as well as with other variants.
Antibodies produced via vaccination were nearly forty percent less effective at reducing illness severity and neutralizing it compared to previous versions of COVID-19. However, those who have been fully vaccinated and received a booster shot did see much higher immune response to the Omicron variant. Due to this, the WHO issued an update on December 8th suggesting that previous infection coupled with two-dose vaccination or two-dose vaccination and a booster shot nearly restores antibody effectiveness.
Pfizer and BioNTech also issued a statement confirming the reduced effectiveness of a two-dose vaccination and the need for a booster shot. Moderna Inc. has yet to release an update, but its President, Stephen Hoge, noted that he believed vaccines would be less effective and that Moderna might have to create a new formulation. Moderna plans to update the public within the next few days.
Johnson & Johnson is also currently evaluating its vaccine against infected blood samples, however, new studies have shown that this vaccine, along with the AstraZeneca vaccine, is not very effective at protecting against the Omicron variant.
Globally, experts researching this variant have repeatedly emphasized that they need to perform more tests. They believe some treatments won't be as effective as they were with other variants. Also, as the variant spreads around the world, it might mutate again into a new variant that can better escape antibodies.
I Am Vaccinated But Not Boosted. Will I Be Protected?
If you have 2 doses of Pfizer or Moderna, you only have moderate protection.
Compared to previous COVID-19 variants, 2 doses has been shown to have under 40% vaccine effectiveness (compared to 90+% with previous variants). A booster shot brings this protection up 37x (approximately 80-90%).
Will Wearing a Mask Help to Protect Me?
Yes! Just masking and social distancing are the simplest and easiest ways to protect yourself from the spread of the Omicron variant. Just be sure to look for a lab-tested mask.
Best Practices to Stay Safe
Given everything we know so far, the Omicron variant might not be totally avoidable. That said, you can limit the impact of it and other SARS-CoV-2 variants by following a few simple safety steps. If you're able to receive a vaccine and haven't yet, it's time to discuss the COVID-19 vaccines with your doctor. Although vaccines don't prevent you from getting this specific variant, they can help reduce the impact that this variant has on your body.
You can also avoid it by using logic when interacting with others:
- Reduce exposures in public by wearing a mask that fits well
- Avoid large crowds
- Regularly use hand sanitizer
- Wash your hands frequently
- If service workers (such as maintenance and repair technicians) come to your home, insist that they wear masks
- Avoid long-distance travel
- Avoid large events with family, friends and others outside of social-distancing bubbles at home, school, and work
Many current cases of SARS-CoV-2 have been traced, for example, to colder weather pushing people indoors, large crowds, public transportation, and Holiday get-togethers.
Next Steps You Can Take
At OURA, our team continues to focus on making people's lives better and making patients' wishes come true through funds raised from merchandise sales.
Our Tech Masks, for example, have antimicrobial fibers woven into every thread, with an optional N95 filter you can slip into the pouch to help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses. Plus, they come in sizes for children and adults alike.
We want everyone in the days, weeks, months and years to feel empowered to live safer, healthier lives, no matter where you are in the world.
If you haven't received a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine yet (or gotten a booster), there are many ways to do so!
- Contact your healthcare or insurance provider for a referral to a vaccination center
- Call 800-232-0233
- Text your ZIP code to 438829
- Or visit vaccines.gov and enter your location info
The best way we can protect ourselves and others is by helping scientists and our own bodies to neutralize this virus using any safe means possible: together.