The Omicron variant of COVID is a strain of the coronavirus that was initially discovered in South Africa in November 2021, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other major public health agencies.
On Nov. 26, 2021, the WHO named the COVID strain, also known as B.1.1.529, after the Greek letter “Omicron” and declared it a “variant of concern,” much like the Delta variant.
Whenever a coronavirus variant is classified as a “variant of concern,” it means that it could be more dangerous than its initial strain.
The Biden administration tried to calm any public fears Monday while urging people to get vaccinated or receive their booster shots.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said in a press conference Monday. “We have the best vaccines in the world, the best medicine, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. We have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before, from vaccines to boosters to vaccines for children.”
The Omicron variant was first reported Nov. 24, and it was first discovered by South African scientists.
Scientists say the variant is worth watching because of Omicron’s prevalence in several countries and its mutations.
But, it’s important to understand that a lot is still unknown about the Omicron variant, including its symptoms and whether or not it causes mild or severe illness in patients.
Here’s what is known so far about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Several countries have identified the Omicron variant. It has not, however, been reported in the United States as of Monday morning (although it likely already is in the country, according to health experts).
Here is a list of places where the Omicron variant has been reported, according to The Washington Post:
- Hong Kong
- The Netherlands
- South Africa
- Switzerland (probable case)
Like most questions about the Omicron variant of COVID, the effectiveness of vaccines against the strain is still largely unknown.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said Monday it will take at least two weeks to determine how much the mutations have impacted the efficacy of the vaccines currently on the market.
The makers of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines are currently preparing to adjust their shots accordingly to include protection against Omicron, according to The New York Times.
“I don’t think that the result will be the vaccines don’t protect,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC. “I think the result could be, which we don’t know yet, the vaccines protect less.”
Biden said Monday his administration would “accelerate” development of any new vaccines or boosters as necessary if data shows the current ones are not effective.
However, Biden said White House Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Anthony Fauci and his medical team believe the current vaccines will continue to provide protection against severe disease.
“We do not believe additional measures will be needed,” Biden said, adding the administration is working with Pfizer and Moderna.
The WHO pointed out that the world is taking the utmost precautions due to the new Omicron strain, but the Delta variant is still responsible for the majority of coronavirus infections around the world.
“Over 99% of cases around the world are due to the Delta variant and more deaths are occurring in the unvaccinated,” WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday. “I think that’s our priority while we wait to find out more about [the Omicron] variant.”
“The best protection against this new variant, or any of the new variants out there, is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot,” Biden said Monday.
At the present time, researchers around the world are coordinating with WHO to find better ways of understanding Omicron and its impact on society.
Some of the studies that have already begun include transmissibility assessments, severity of infection, identifying symptoms, how well vaccines work against the variants, and if any treatments work against Omicron.
In the meantime, WHO is encouraging countries to share their data on hospitalized COVID patients through the WHO COVID-19 Clinical Data Platform so researchers can have access to this information on patient outcomes.
Related stories about COVID-19:
How to get a COVID booster shot at CVS, Walgreens or Rite Aid
The side effects you might get from a COVID booster shot
Should I mix-and-match COVID vaccines? What to know about the newly approved boosters
COVID breakthrough cases: What to know about symptoms, length, quarantine, long-term effects
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com
Katherine Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a tip? Tell us at nj.com/tips.