Experts Race to Learn More About COVID-19 Omicron Variant

The best protection against all variants of COVID-19 continues to be vaccination, including a booster shot for eligible individuals.

Although relatively little is known about the recently identified COVID-19 Omicron variant, researchers are racing to learn more about how it impacts transmissibility and severity of disease. In the meantime, experts are continuing to urge vaccination.

The Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa, was designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 26, based on advice from the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. According to a press release, the variant has several mutations that could potentially impact how it behaves.1

Research has yet to conclusively determine whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible compared to other variants, according to the WHO press release. The number of patients testing positive with this variant in areas of South Africa has increased, but epidemiological studies are ongoing to determine whether this is due to the variant or other factors.1

It is also unclear whether the Omicron variant causes more severe disease compared to other variants. Preliminary findings suggest that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this could be explained by the increasing overall numbers of infections rather than the Omicron variant specifically. There is currently no information suggesting that symptoms of the Omicron variant differ from other variants.1

Initial evidence does suggest that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited, according to the WHO press release. Polymerase chain reaction tests continue to be effective in detecting infection and corticosteroids and interleukin-6 receptor blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19.1

Interestingly, the initial reported infections were among university students, who are younger and tend to have more mild disease. However, the press release said understanding the level of severity of the variant could take up to several weeks.1

After the WHO designated Omicron a variant of concern, President Joseph Biden took steps to restrict travel from countries in Southern Africa. During a press briefing, however, he said that these steps will not stop the spread of the variant into the United States.2

“But here’s what it does: It gives us time,” he said in the briefing. “It gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine. You have to get the shot.”2

He added that although the Omicron variant is cause for concern, it is not cause for panic.2 The best protection against all variants of COVID-19 continues to be vaccination, including a booster shot for eligible individuals. To this aim, the FDA and CDC have recently expanded the authorization to booster shots to include all individuals 18 years of age and older after completing primary vaccination.3

“COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be the best and highly effective defense against COVID-19,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, MD, in a press release. “Authorizing the use of a single booster dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for individuals 18 years of age and older helps to provide continued protection against COVID-19, including the serious consequences that can occur, such as hospitalization and death.”3

Current FDA guidance advises that the current vaccines remain highly effective at preventing COVID-19 infection and serious outcomes associated with infection, including hospitalization and death, according to a press release. Additional data suggest that a booster shot following the primary vaccination provides further protection, in addition to standard precautions such as mask wearing and hand hygiene.4

“While it will be a few weeks before we know everything we need to know about how strongly the existing vaccines protect against the new variant…the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease,” Biden said in the press briefing. “And as additional protections, please wear your masks when you’re indoors in public settings, around other people. It protects you, [and] it protects those around you.”2

REFERENCES

1. Update on Omicron. Press release. World Health Organization; November 28, 2021. Accessed November 30, 2021. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron

2. Remarks by President Biden Providing an Update on the Omicron Variant. News release. White House; November 29, 2021. Accessed November 30, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/11/29/remarks-by-president-biden-providing-an-update-on-the-omicron-variant/

3. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Expands Eligibility for COVID-19 Vaccine Boosters. News release. FDA; November 19, 2021. Accessed November 30, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-expands-eligibility-covid-19-vaccine-boosters

4. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Actively Working to Investigate, Address Potential Impacts of Omicron Variant; Urges Vaccination and Boosters. News release. FDA; November 30, 2021. Accessed November 30, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-actively-working-investigate-address-potential-impacts-omicron