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By: Aditi Vyas, MD, MPHMedical Director Department of Employee Health ServicesNorthShore University HealthSystem
A new variant – this one is called Omicron - has surfaced yet again, and its discovery may tempt you to focus on the worst-case scenarios, especially since it has crossed over to the United States. Alarming headlines can make it seem like the pandemic is starting all over again.
Viruses change as needed for them to survive, which gives rise to different variants. First, we saw the Alpha, then the Delta, plus a few variants in-between. However, there really was no jump in the percentage of COVID cases that led to hospitalizations or death from the Alpha or Delta variants. The rate remained steady, and vaccines were extremely helpful in keeping those rates of severe illness steady.
Here, I’ll take you through what we know about the new COVID-19 variant Omicron and what you can do to keep you and your loved ones safe and calm.
What is Omicron?Omicron is the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet (O,o). The World Health Organization (WHO) designates certain COVID variants with a letter of the Greek alphabet. Omicron is also known as the B.1.1.529 SARS-CoV-2 Variant. With any new variant, there isn’t much information out there, so what do we know so far?
Where was the Omicron variant discovered and where is it now?A rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa last month prompted researchers to perform genetic sequencing to look for mutations. This finding led to the identification of a novel variant B.1.1.529, or Omicron. The first known specimen was collected on Nov. 9 in South Africa and it was first reported to WHO on Nov. 24. It has also been identified in patients in an increasing number of countries outside of southern Africa, including the UK, Israel, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Canada, and several European countries.
As of Dec. 1, the California Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Department of Public Health confirmed Omicron in a traveler who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22.
What is concerning about the Omicron variant?This variant contains a lot of mutations, some of which may allow the virus to spread easier or have reduced binding to COVID antibodies. This has led to concerns of increased transmission, or potential for the virus to evade the immune system in people with immunity. So far there is very preliminary data from South Africa that the virus may be more transmissible. There is no suggestion at this time that Omicron causes more severe disease. But there needs to be a lot more information before any conclusions are drawn. It is really important to note that just because the Omicron variant has concerning mutations, that doesn’t automatically mean the variant will be more contagious or lead to more vaccine breakthrough infections or reinfections. Studies of how this variant is behaving in people and in communities are critical.
When will we get more information?Over the coming weeks, as evidence builds, we will have more information on the prevalence, transmissibility, severity, response to prior immunity, and other characteristics of the variant. But it can take time before the picture is clear.
Do vaccines work again variants?Vaccinations are very important because they protect against severe disease, hospitalizations and death. Vaccines also can provide spillover protection against variants that they were not specifically designed to fight. The degree of how effective the vaccine is depends on when you received the vaccine and the variant. Researchers are testing how the vaccine responds to the Omicron variant and we will have answers in the next few weeks. It is very important to get your booster and to become fully vaccinated.
Can we use the same COVID-19 PCR test to detect this new variant?Yes, we can use the same test since the viral overall structure is the same except for mutations in the spike protein.
What should I do now?It is important to realize that COVID-19 cases in our community are currently rising, but this is related to the Delta variant and not Omicron. Omicron is something to watch closely, but it is still important to remember the safety practices that protect against all COVID variants. This includes getting a COVID test if you feel sick, staying home to avoid infecting others when you feel sick or have a positive test, wearing a mask in indoor settings, washing your hands and physically distancing. In addition, getting vaccinated - including getting a booster shot, now recommended for all adults 18 years of age and older – helps to prevent the spread of COVID and further development of COVID variants and is still one of our biggest weapons against COVID.
NorthShore Infectious Disease Physicians Jennifer Grant, MD, Chethra Muthiah, MD and Oluwadamilola Adeyemi, MD, contributed to this article.