What we know about Omicron, the new COVID variant on the block

Seems like a bit of an asshole, but we won’t jump to conclusions yet

The Pandemic

I got exactly one million frantic texts about Omicron, the new COVID variant, over the weekend. Omicron was identified last week by scientists in South Africa and it quickly became the new focus of our pandemic anxieties, thus spawning a new fear to be shared over our holiday Tofurkeys. Countries scrambled to put travel restrictions in place and today W.H.O. warned that Omicron could pose very high risks around the globe. Here’s what we know so far about Omicron, the latest coronavirus variant.

Is Omicron more dangerous than other mutations?

The truth is that we still don’t know a lot about Omicron, but one thing we do know is that it has more mutations than strains like Delta. Scientists think that there could be up to 32 variations in the spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to cells, allowing it to invade them — which may make it more easily transmissible than other variants, the New York Times reported. In only a few weeks, Omicron has become the dominant strain in South Africa.

Unfortunately, Omicron seems to be moving very quickly, and some scientists fear it will outpace Delta. Cases of the virus have already been detected in Scotland, England, and The Netherlands, CNN reported. U.S. officials haven’t found any cases in America, yet, but Anthony Fauci told NBC that it’s only a matter of time before we do.

Here’s the thing: Just because Omicron appears to be more easily transmitted from person-to-person, that doesn’t mean it’s more dangerous than other strains of COVID-19. According to W.H.O., there is no evidence to suggest that the symptoms of Omicron lead to severe illness or death, and the South African doctor who found the mutation described the virus as mild.

Will the vaccines work against Omicron?

After all the hullabaloo trying to convince people to get the jabs, it would really suck if Omicron could get past the vaccines, but at this point, we just don’t know if that’s the case. During a meeting with the Biden administration on Sunday, Fauci said that it will be about two weeks before we have accurate information about the effectiveness of vaccines on Omicron, according to the Times.

Regardless, health officials are stressing that the vaccines are still probably the best way to protect against severe illness and death. Vaccine manufacturers are already working to make a booster specifically designed to protect against Omicron. Until then, global health experts agree that the best way to stay safe against Omicron — and all the other variants — is to get vaxxed and stay up to date on your boosters.

What’s going to happen next?

With so many things still unknown about Omicron, it is impossible to tell what kind of impact it might have. Officials are really trying to make it seem like everything’s under control, but since last week, 44 countries have imposed travel restrictions, CNN reported. Some are taking things really far — Japan and Israel — and have banned all foreign nationals from crossing their borders.

In the U.S., officials in NYC recommended this morning that everyone wear masks in all indoor public places to be safe. "We do anticipate detecting the Omicron in New York in the coming days based on what we know about its global spread," Dave Chokshi, NYC health commissioner, told CNN. President Biden addressed the nation about Omicron today and said that lockdowns are off the table for now, and that he did not expect them to be necessary if Americans continue to get the vaccines and boosters.

As someone who has been covering COVID-19 for the entirety of the Greek alphabet, I agree that it does seem inevitable that Omicron will make its way into the U.S. (if it hasn’t already). But maybe we should be worrying more about how we’re living than how we might die. The names of the variants may change, but the advice stays the same: Get vaccinated and wear a mask.