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Dear Doctors: Can you please talk about the omicron variant? I keep hearing different information about whether or not it’s worse than the delta variant and how sick it’s going to make you. Why has there been so much panic about this new variant?
Dear Reader: We’re hearing from many readers regarding the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, which is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. We’re happy to address what is known thus far, and fully expect to be writing updates as research and data reveal more.
Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa in late November. Its appearance coincided with a marked surge of new infections in the region, which put researchers on high alert. Testing showed that this new variant was spreading faster than previous forms of the coronavirus. When analysis of the virus revealed a significantly higher number of mutations than have previously been observed, omicron was classified as a “variant of concern.” One month after it was identified, the variant was confirmed to have spread to 38 countries on six continents. The surprisingly rapid spread of a new variant, along with the dozens of mutations that it exhibits, have likely helped drive public concern.
As we’ve discussed here before, the job of a virus is to replicate. In the course of making multiple copies of itself, genetic mistakes occur. Most of the time, these errors have no effect on the virus and are not repeated. But sometimes, the genetic changes that occur during replication help the virus to become more successful. The end result is that particular version of the virus will get replicated more often, which gives rise to what is known as a variant. That’s the mechanism that resulted in the delta variant, and it is now in play with the omicron variant.
What remains to be seen is what omicron’s changes to the viral structure of SARS-CoV-2 mean to those who become infected with the virus. It appears that the omicron variant spreads faster than the delta variant, but it’s too soon to know for sure. Also unclear at this time is whether or not omicron is more severe than other variants. Thus far, COVID vaccines continue to protect against severe disease and death. However, as with the delta variant and original coronavirus, breakthrough infections are expected. Unfortunately, it will take more real-world data to learn more about how the omicron variant behaves.
What remains certain is that you can lower your risk of infection through the vigilant use of high-quality masks. While the virus particles themselves are microscopic, they can’t move on their own. They hitch a ride on the droplets of a cough, sneeze or exhalation, and those can be physically stopped by the fabric of a good mask. N95 masks, which offer the highest protection, are once again widely available. If you haven’t yet been vaccinated, we urge you to do so. And if you’re six months or more beyond the second dose of a two-dose vaccine, or two months beyond the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it’s important to get a booster.