Omicron FAQs: Here’s the latest news
The most prevalent variant of SARS-CoV-2 through the middle of 2022 has been Omicron BA.5. This less dangerous, more prevalent version of the virus that causes COVID-19 was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa and Botswana on Nov. 24, 2021 and was labeled a variant of concern just 48 hours later. By December 2021, Omicron was the leading variant in the U.S., and has remained so for more than half a year. Omicron replaced the variant Delta B.1.617.2 in terms of overall case numbers.
Here is the latest about this fast-evolving virus.
Omicron variant 101: What you need to know
Where did Omicron get its name?
Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. It is the seventh variant of concern identified by the WHO, although some other variants with Greek letters did not reach variant of concern or variant of interest classification levels. Of note, WHO skipped two Greek letters when naming variants: “nu” was deemed to be too easily confused with “new” and “xi” is a common last name. Omicron is formally known as B.1.1.529 with the descendent lineages BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2, BA.3, and so on. As of July 2022, BA.5 made up more than 50 percent of the cases in the U.S., while BA.4 made up about 17 percent of cases.
What is unusual about this variant?
Omicron spreads more easily than other variants but is less likely to send someone to the hospital. There are close to 50 mutations in the Omicron variant when compared to the original virus detected in China in 2019. Omicron has 36 mutations in its spike protein, compared to nine in Delta. Omicron is an efficient spreader and BA.4 and BA.5 appear to be better than other variants at getting past the protections offered by vaccines and previous infection, although medical experts say that the best way to prevent serious illness is still to get a vaccine.
How does a virus mutate?
Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 replicate over time and, as they replicate, the genes undergo random copying errors, or genetic mutations. Depending on the location and type of mutation, these errors can lead to alterations in the virus’ surface proteins or antigens.
What do B.1.1.529’s mutations tell us?
Omicron has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning to health authorities because they are located in key genes that affect the virus’ ability to enter human cells and to evade the immune system, including immunity resulting from past infection and vaccination.
Which mutations does Omicron have?
Omicron has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone. According to the WHO, BA.2 had several additional mutations, including in the spike protein, which may be responsible for its increasing prevalence around the world. BA.4 and BA.5 have their own unique mutations, including changers in the viral spike protein that may be what makes it easier to latch on to host cells and infect people who were up-to-date on their vaccines.
Danger and spread of Omicron:
Is Omicron more or less dangerous than Delta?
It depends. Omicron in general spreads much more easily than Delta, but also appears to result in more mild symptoms. As with the other variants, common symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, runny nose, fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, recent loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. While its symptoms are less severe, surges have led to significant increases in hospitalizations and deaths.
How serious is the COVID-19 Omicron variant?
According to some reports, while Omicron is generally less deadly than other variants, it tends to replicate more in the upper respiratory tract than deeper in the lungs, which means it spreads easily but resides in less dangerous tissues. Although overall less deadly, it can be serious and even fatal for those who get it who have an underlying illness. In theory, some of Omicron’s mutations can make a vaccine less able to fend off infections or they could make the monoclonal antibodies used to treat COVID-19 less effective.
Does the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spread faster than previous variants?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Omicron likely spreads more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and other variants, possibly because of immune evasiveness and the fact that its residency in the upper respiratory tract causes more coughing; some studies have suggested that unvaccinated people spread omicron and other variants equally. According to the CDC, anyone with Omicron can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have any symptoms.
Does the COVID-19 vaccine work against Omicron?
Yes, though Pfizer, one of the vaccine makers, has said that a third shot offers the best protection. “Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” said Albert Bourla, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Pfizer. If you have had a booster shot, your protection against this variant improves dramatically, although, as stated earlier, mutations in the current variant, BA.5, make infections among those already vaccinated more likely.
Are there any approved medications for COVID-19?
Yes. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved VEKLURY® (remdesivir) for certain COVID-19 patients. A number of new drugs are being studied thanks to the FDA’s creation of the Coronavirus Treatment Acceleration Program. Olumiant® (baricitinib) has not been approved for COVID-19 treatment, though the agency has issued an emergency use authorization for Olumiant® for emergency use by healthcare providers for COVID-19 treatment in hospitalized adults and pediatric patients two years or older who need supplemental oxygen, non-invasive or invasive mechanical ventilation, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.
How long will it take to design Omicron-specific vaccines?
Thanks to the effectiveness of messenger RNA, an Omicron-specific booster is already available. Pfizer and BioNTech announced a vaccine candidate at the end of June that demonstrated high immune response against Omicron.
Do PCR tests detect Omicron?
While a typical PCR test does not differentiate between strains, swabs from PCR tests can be sent to a lab for additional analysis and can show if the variant causing an infection is Omicron, Delta, or something else. But not all labs have the required technology to identify Omicron specifically. Usually, only a fraction of swabs from positive test results are sent in for genomic sequencing.