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COVID-19 Omicron Variant: It's Early, But Here's Everything We Know Right Now

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As far as COVID-19 variants go, Omicron certainly grabs your attention. Its name alone sounds ominous.

The World Health Organization officially classified Omicron as a variant of concern last Friday. But what do we actually know about this new variant?

"The Omicron COVID-19 variant has been making the news, but it hasn't made it to the U.S. just yet," Dr. Wesley Long, director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist. "That being said, we are likely to see cases here eventually. How Omicron compares to Delta remains to be seen, though."

It's early, but here's what we know — and don't know — about Omicron.

The unknowns will outnumber the knowns for a few more weeks

"Omicron was identified and reported earlier than other variants of concern, namely Alpha and Delta, and it's still too early to predict how it will behave," explains Dr. Long.

Here's what we do know about Omicron right now:

  • It was first detected in South Africa.
  • It has since been detected in other countries, including some parts of Europe, Asia and Canada.
  • It contains a lot of mutations, some of which are concerning or present in other variants.
     

"Beyond that, we really don't know much yet," adds Dr. Long. "It will take a few weeks of observation before it becomes clear just how concerning Omicron is or isn't."

For whatever we do know about Omicron, there are many more things we don't know, including:

  • Will it replace Delta, the predominant COVID-19 variant?
  • Does it spread easier or not as well?
  • Does it cause more, less or essentially the same disease severity?
  • What will it mean for available COVID-19 vaccines and treatments?
     

"These are important questions, and each will take some time to answer," says Dr. Long.

Omicron is spreading, but Delta is still spreading, too

"The Omicron variant has already been detected in several countries, including our neighbor, Canada," says Dr. Long. "It's still accounting for only a very small number of cases, though, and it's not entirely clear if it's more transmissible than the Delta variant."

Amid the news, Dr. Long urges that we not lose sight of what's right in front of us — Delta, the predominant COVID-19 strain that wreaked havoc this summer and is still circulating across the country — especially as we head into holiday season.

"We need to keep our eye on Omicron, but our immediate concern is still Delta," says Dr. Long. "We've seen firsthand what it can do, and it's still causing a significant amount of illness, particularly among the unvaccinated."

The unvaccinated are at greatest risk — no matter the variant

New variant or not, Dr. Long says the most pressing issue is that we still have far too many people who are unvaccinated.

"We know the vaccines are safe, effective and our best defense against the virus," says Dr. Long. "Even if you've had COVID-19, get vaccinated. We know that the immunity offered by vaccination is stronger and lasts longer than natural immunity."

In fact, unvaccinated adults are twice as likely to get reinfected with COVID-19 than those who get vaccinated after recovering from their illness.

Whether you're hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines or wrongly assume you can't get COVID-19 twice, make sure you're reading trusted information about the vaccines and reach out to your doctor if you have any unanswered questions.

In addition, COVID-19 boosters are an important component of continued protection against the virus. If you're eligible — six months after the second of the Pfizer or Moderna shots or two months after the Johnson & Johnson shot — schedule your booster as soon as possible.

"People who are vaccinated are more protected from severe outcomes and hospitalization with Delta and there's no indication yet that this protection won't extend to Omicron," says Dr. Long.

Our best defenses against Delta, Omicron or any other COVID-19 variant remain the same

Regardless of which variant is currently circulating, Dr. Long says that the best way to stay safe from COVID-19 is to be aware of your surroundings and exercise the COVID-19 precautions that we know work, including:

"Another important safety measure is to get your annual flu shot," adds Dr. Long. "Flu season is in full swing and influenza cases are on the rise."

If Omicron does appear in Houston, Dr. Long and his team will know

One of the big questions we all have about Omicron right now is: Will we even know if it's here?

"At Houston Methodist, we sequence the viral genome of every positive COVID-19 sample collected from our patients," says Dr. Long. "These massive sequencing efforts help us track the prevalence of the different variants in our community, as well as help us quickly detect new variants."

So the short answer is yes: if and when Omicron does make it to Houston, Dr. Long and his team will let us know.

By: Katie McCallum 

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