People, already weary of a pandemic practically two years lengthy, had been dealt a brand new blow throughout the lengthy Thanksgiving weekend: the announcement {that a} new coronavirus variant had emerged.

The omicron variant, formally often known as B.1.1.529, surfaced in November in a number of southern African nations. It set off alarm bells worldwide when public well being officers in South Africa noticed it starting to outcompete the earlier reigning variant, delta. This urged that omicron may ultimately unfold broadly. Certainly, omicron has since been reported on a number of continents, possible due to worldwide journey by individuals unknowingly contaminated.

After the emergence of omicron was introduced, a number of nations imposed journey bans hoping to comprise the virus. Whether or not these bans will successfully sluggish the unfold stays unknown. “Journey bans don’t assist as soon as the horse is already out of the barn, as we’ve seen earlier than and are seeing now,” mentioned Tara Smith, a Kent State College epidemiologist.

Scientists warning that it’s nonetheless too early to say whether or not omicron will show as harmful as delta. Other variants that originally appeared worrisome have flamed out.

For now, right here’s what we all know, and don’t know, concerning the omicron variant.

What Is a Variant?

A variant of a virus is one which has mutated in a means that bolsters its unfold or severity in contrast with the unique pressure that emerged in Wuhan, China. “RNA viruses just like the coronavirus can mutate after they replicate, particularly when circulating at excessive charges,” mentioned Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medication on the College of California-San Francisco.

Coronaviruses do not mutate as readily as influenza viruses do, however they do mutate over time. The variants usually produce the identical vary of signs as the unique pressure of the coronavirus. However the mutations might assist the virus unfold extra successfully from individual to individual, or have a bonus in sneaking previous both pure or vaccine immunity.

What Variants Had been Already Circulating in america?

To this point, public well being officers have noted 5 “variants of concern,” plus two “variants of curiosity” not but thought of as worrisome. Up to now, no variants have emerged that match essentially the most worrisome of the three official classes — “variants of excessive consequence.”

The World Well being Group determined early this yr to title the variants after Greek letters, each to simplify the dialogue and to restrict the stigma of getting a variant named for a rustic.

The primary 4 “variants of concern” — alpha, beta, gamma and delta — have been circulating in america for many of this yr. However essentially the most dominant variant has been delta, due to its potential to unfold from individual to individual extra rapidly than different variants. For months, delta has accounted for greater than 99% of coronavirus infections within the U.S.

There have been no confirmed instances of omicron in america as of noon Nov. 29, however consultants warn it’s only a matter of time. It could possibly be within the U.S. already, merely undetected.

How Did Omicron Emerge?

Although scientists aren’t positive exactly the place omicron first surfaced, it was most certainly in a southern African nation.

Specialists say low vaccination charges in that a part of the world in all probability performed a job in creating a positive surroundings for the mutations that produced omicron. (It may be pronounced both AH-mi-crahn or OH-mi-crahn.)

“Many international locations in Africa have populations with very low immunity — about 30% in South Africa are vaccinated,” Smith mentioned. “In a largely non-immune inhabitants, the virus can sweep by, and every new individual contaminated is an opportunity for the virus to mutate.”

Why Did Public Well being Officers React So Urgently to Omicron?

The priority stems from the scope and nature of the brand new variant’s mutations. South African well being officers famous 50 notable mutations, 30 of that are on the spike protein, a key construction within the virus, New York magazine reported. That’s greater than earlier variants have had.

“If we had been looking for mutations that do have an effect on transmissibility, it’s bought all of them,” College of Oxford evolutionary biologist Aris Katzourakis told Science magazine

Nonetheless, what’s unsure at this level is how successfully these mutations will work collectively in making a variant that may persistently outcompete delta.

What Do We Know About Omicron’s Diploma of Infectiousness?

The omicron variant is so new that scientists are simply starting to find out about its traits. Due to this, consultants urge warning in drawing conclusions, particularly from anecdotal proof.

That mentioned, scientists say they’d not be shocked if omicron turns into as simply transmissible as delta. 

“The reply is unsure, after all, however it seems as if it will likely be at the least as infectious as delta,” mentioned Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive drugs at Vanderbilt College Faculty of Medication.

One complicating issue, Schaffner mentioned, is that the preliminary areas of quickest unfold have been in areas of Johannesburg populated by younger adults and school college students, who have a tendency to have decrease vaccination charges. The vulnerability of those teams to an infection could also be exaggerating how quickly omicron appears to be spreading.

What Do We Know About Whether or not Omicron Makes Sufferers Sicker?

The early proof is considerably conflicting, however there are indicators that signs from omicron is probably not extra extreme than earlier variants. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Affiliation, has mentioned that the early instances being seen among the many unvaccinated are mild.

It stays to be seen, nonetheless, whether or not older and unhealthier sufferers will even see milder signs. One other caveat is that it could be too early in omicron’s unfold to see instances which have severely progressed.

Will Current Vaccines Be Efficient Towards the Omicron Variant?

Scientists are cautiously optimistic that present vaccines will even be efficient in opposition to omicron, simply as they’ve been in opposition to delta, at the least in having the ability to stop sickness extreme sufficient to require hospitalization.

“Scientists in South Africa and Israel, the place the variant has additionally been detected, have indicated that they are not seeing severe disease among the vaccinated,” Gandhi mentioned.

Gandhi added that the immunity-providing B cells produced by the vaccines have been shown to produce antibodies against variants, and that T-cell immunity, which protects in opposition to extreme illness, is robust and shouldn’t be in danger from the mutations being seen in omicron. The vaccines additionally produce polyclonal antibodies that work in opposition to a number of elements of the spike protein, she mentioned. Lastly, booster pictures have been proven to be efficient in strengthening immunity rapidly.

“Most scientists consider we must always nonetheless have safety in opposition to extreme illness with vaccinations, and vaccination stays the mainstay of management,” Gandhi mentioned.

Backside line: In the event you haven’t been vaccinated, and particularly if you happen to haven’t had the illness but, get vaccinated. And if you happen to’ve already been vaccinated, get a booster.

How Lengthy Will It Be Earlier than We Have a Higher Deal with on the Risk From Omicron?

Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson are all testing the effectiveness of their existing vaccines against omicron within the lab, primarily based on variant-analysis protocols developed early this yr. These outcomes ought to be accessible in every week or two.

Other questions — together with whether or not omicron makes you sicker, and whether or not it’s extra transmissible — will take longer to reply as a result of they require cautious contact tracing and correct diagnoses of these contaminated. 

To higher reply these questions, Smith mentioned, “I believe, at a minimal, it can take a month to get some preliminary knowledge, and fairly presumably longer to actually know the fuller image. We additionally gained’t find out about real-world expertise in vaccine breakthroughs till that point.”

Can We Count on a Particular New Booster to be Developed for Omicron?

It’s unknown whether or not the omicron variant would require a reformulated booster. A newly formulated booster wasn’t needed for delta, as a result of researchers decided that the prevailing formulation was nonetheless efficient.

That mentioned, vaccine makers can bounce in with a brand new booster rapidly if they’ve to. 

Within the occasion that such a variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech “count on to have the ability to develop and produce a tailored vaccine in opposition to that variant” inside 100 days, pending regulatory approval, a Pfizer spokesperson told The Washington Post.

Dr. Matthew Laurens, a specialist in pediatric infectious illnesses on the College of Maryland Faculty of Medication, mentioned he’s assured boosters could possibly be developed and examined rapidly if wanted, “possible inside a number of months.”

What Occurred to the Other Variants?

Between Could 2021, when delta was named a variant of concern, and November 2021, when omicron was given the identical label, two different variants had been elevated to the decrease “variant of curiosity” standing: lambda from Peru and mu from Colombia. Other variants, equivalent to one found in Nepal known as “delta-plus,” attracted discover throughout that interval as nicely. However none of those managed to outcompete delta in a constant means, in order that they had been by no means elevated to “variant of concern.”

That is essentially the most hopeful end result for omicron. The opposite variants “all had comparable considerations round them, however they didn’t develop to any important diploma after the preliminary reporting,” Gandhi mentioned.

Is It Affordable to Assume the U.S. Is in a Higher Place to Deal with Omicron Than It Was for Delta?

Specialists usually agreed that america ought to be higher ready to battle omicron than it was when delta emerged earlier this yr.

“We’re in a a lot better place since we’ve greater charges of vaccination, the supply of boosters for everybody over 18 and vaccine eligibility down to 5 years previous,” Gandhi mentioned. “We even have greater charges of pure immunity on this nation due to the delta variant’s unfold since July 2021. And we’ve oral antiviral therapeutics on the horizon. So we’ve the instruments to combat this new variant.”

The problem, Schaffner mentioned, shall be to make certain People proceed to get vaccinated and boosted, and to make use of testing and preserve secure conduct in public.

“All these instruments can be found,” he mentioned. “The large query is how inclined most of the people is to use these instruments.”

Is the Coronavirus Going to Be Round Completely, Just like the Flu?

Specialists now consider it’s unlikely that the coronavirus will both be eradicated from the globe, like smallpox has been, and even eradicated in america, as polio was following near-universal vaccination. The mix of speedy mutations and too-low vaccination charges make it possible that covid-19 gained’t comply with smallpox and polio into submission.

“This may extra possible be the influenza mannequin, the place we’ve to observe mutations yearly and alter the boosters accordingly,” Schaffner mentioned. The truth is, he mentioned, efforts to create mixed coronavirus-flu pictures are already underway.