Editor’s note: This piece was updated on Monday, Dec. 6, to include the latest information on the Omicron variant.
The latest COVID-19 variant to rise to the level of concern was named on Nov. 26: Omicron.
You might be wondering why the new strain sounds like a Marvel supervillain and, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with its extraordinary powers. The World Health Organization simply decided to name significant variants after Greek letters as a way to avoid confusion, prevent discrimination and stigma, and streamline public discourse, according to the New York Times.
On the one hand, the word Omicron sticks in the memory. On the other hand, there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the potential severity of Omicron as revealed by the non-scientific response by governments worldwide to immediately impose travel bans upon learning of its existence.
More work needs to be done to understand the transmissibility, severity, and immune evasiveness of Omicron, according to the Conversation. But early reports suggest that it’s causing milder infections in people. There's also a lot that can be inferred about the virus based on the best scientific and public health insights available, which can guide how we act in the weeks and months ahead.
“More than any humans in history, we have the ability to anticipate pandemics, to prepare for them, to unravel the genetics of pathogens, to detect them at their earliest stages, to prevent them spiralling into global disasters, and to respond when they do,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said in a Nov. 29 press briefing for Omicron.
“And yet here we are, entering the third year of the most acute health crisis in a century, and the world remains in its grip,” he added. “This pestilence — one that we can prevent, detect, and treat — continues to cast a long shadow over the world.”
Here’s what we know so far.
What Is the Omicron Variant?
The COVID-19 virus is constantly evolving as it seeks to evade human immune responses and infect more people but most of its evolutions are insignificant. Every now and then, a variant of the disease emerges that warrants a closer look. Omicron is the latest such evolution, following (from most recent) Delta, Gamma, Beta, and Alpha.
Epidemiologists in South Africa sequenced the Omicron strain and reported their findings to the WHO on Nov. 24, noting that it contains more than 30 mutations in the virus’ spike proteins, which allow it to penetrate and infect cells. The variant was first discovered in Botswana, but experts say the origin is still unknown and it was likely circulating “more widely and for longer,” according to CNBC.
3 Things You Need to Know About the Omicron Variant of COVID-19
- Omicron was first reported in Botswana and then South Africa but has since spread to more than a dozen countries.
- The variant has an unusually high number of mutations, but this in and of itself doesn’t tell us much about its effects on the human body.
- Some countries have enacted travel bans from southern Africa, which some scientists have called a “kneejerk reaction.” The same rules apply for containing Omicron as any other variant: vaccine equity; universal access to treatments, masks, and hygiene maintenance; and poverty reduction measures.
How Does Omicron Differ From Other Strains in Its Effects on the Human Body?
Early reports suggest that people infected with the Omicron variant have symptoms similar to those of the flu or common cold — fatigue and head and body aches — whereas people with the Delta variant often report low oxygen levels, elevated pulse rates, and loss of smell and taste, according to Bloomberg.
These are early reports, however, and a clearer picture will emerge as more data arrives. While there are no indications that Omicron causes more dangerous symptoms than other strains, it’s possible that it may be more transmissible and less susceptible to vaccines.
Where Has Omicron Been Found?
The Omicron variant has been found in 45 countries and counting. The WHO warns that the virus could soon be present in every country around the world, further prolonging the pandemic, endangering vulnerable populations, and exacerbating inequalities.
How Are Countries Responding?
Public health experts have urged countries not to enact travel bans because Omicron has and will spread beyond borders regardless, and travel bans unnecessarily stigmatize and harm affected countries.
Nevertheless, dozens of governments have restricted travel from countries in southern Africa, a move criticized by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa.
"The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic," he said in a speech on Sunday.
Many governments are actively monitoring flights from southern Africa, testing travelers on board, and requiring those who test positive to quarantine. Governments are also ordering stronger public health measures such as expanded mask and vaccine requirements and restrictions on indoor gatherings.
Omicron has become the dominant COVID-19 strain in South Africa, but the country’s health minister has urged people and world leaders not to panic and to instead work together to understand and contain the variant.
That’s an important point that can’t be overlooked — the ongoing refusal of wealthy countries to help low-income countries obtain vaccines and treatments has arguably created the conditions for Omicron to emerge in the first place.
Vaccine nationalism has been criticized since the arrival of vaccines, yet very little progress has been made on the issue, particularly because countries like Germany and the US defend patent rules held by pharmaceutical giants that prohibit the mass and equitable production of vaccines. Relaxing these rules in what’s known as a TRIPS waiver would dramatically expand the availability of effective vaccines, thus helping more of the world contain COVID-19 and prevent severe illness and death.
On Monday, a group of 2.5 million health care workers urged countries to temporarily suspend vaccine patent rules to address the glaring inequality of vaccine access. Public health and human rights groups have long argued that the pandemic will never be overcome until vaccines are universally available.
“As frontline workers, we are well placed to testify against the violation of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health because of the impact of a delayed COVID-19 TRIPS waiver,” the letter warned.
What Can Governments Do to Contain Omicron?
The WHO has laid out an action plan for countries to follow.
When it comes to understanding the variant, countries need to increase surveillance and sequencing of the virus and share data on individual cases and outbreaks to public databases to allow for global monitoring. Countries should also apply resources to understanding the characteristics and effects of Omicron to determine if existing vaccines and treatments remain effective.
In terms of containing the virus, experts say we need to pursue science-based approaches. First and foremost, this means providing vaccines to everyone who is eligible, especially at-risk populations.
Countries should also continue to provide economic relief to communities to ensure that people can isolate themselves without experiencing the hardships of poverty.
Countries need to work together to contain and overcome COVID-19. That means sharing vaccines and treatments, ensuring all health care systems are properly resourced and staffed, and providing essential aid to countries suffering from economic repercussions.
What Can I Do to Stay Safe?
The best ways to stay safe from COVID-19 are well-known: get vaccinated if you can, wear a mask in public settings, wash your hands regularly, avoid large gatherings, and get tested if you have symptoms. If you test positive for the virus, isolate yourself from others, alert those you had been in recent contact with, rest and drink lots of fluids, and seek medical attention if your oxygen levels drop or your well-being deteriorates.