The World Health Organization has declared the COVID-19 omicron variant a “variant of concern” — its most severe categorization of variants — but there’s still a lot we don’t know, including how current vaccines will react to it.
In a briefing on Monday, President Joe Biden said the omicron variant is a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
On Tuesday, NC Gov. Roy Cooper said in a press briefing that “getting more people vaccinated is the way out of this pandemic.”
NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen added that while we haven’t yet seen the omicron variant in North Carolina or the U.S., health professionals believe it is already here.
“The time to act is now for vaccinations,” Cohen said. “What we know is providing yourself that initial level of immunity through vaccination is going to be helpful.”
The News & Observer talked to local medical experts to learn more about omicron and our current vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Do current vaccines protect against all variants of COVID-19, including omicron?
• Vaccines offer the best protection: “Vaccines are our best line of defense against COVID-19, including this variant,” said Dr. Julie Swann, a health and humanitarian researcher and the department head of NC State’s the Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
• Some data suggests that vaccines offer more protection than having had COVID-19 previously, which was true for the delta variant.
• Get your booster: On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded the recommendation that all adults over 18 should receive a booster shot, supplying even more protection against death and disease from the virus.
What are scientists doing to learn more about omicron and vaccines?
The omicron variant will be tested in lab settings, Swann said. This will give a general indication of whether generated antibodies will work against the virus.
• To fully understand the effectiveness of our vaccines, it will be necessary to use data from infections and compare rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
• Sampling is helping us learn more: Scientists will look at lots of positive COVID tests and sample a number of them to look for specific strains of the virus.
Scientists are working hard to study the epidemiology of the variant, said Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, the director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention. This includes:
where the variant is geographically
who the variant is effecting (only unvaccinated or both vaccinated and unvaccinated people?)
tracking the number of cases with the variant over time
Other scientists are learning more about the variations present in omicron and determining whether our current vaccines and therapies are still as effective. If not, they’re figuring out how to modify them.
When will COVID-19 variants stop popping up?
If the virus has opportunities to continue spreading, it will have opportunities to mutate, Swann said.
Some points to keep in mind:
• To reduce variants, more people should be vaccinated and get boosters as recommended. This includes children who are eligible.
• In addition to reducing variants, we can expect to gain additional immunity over time to the variants, Swann said.
• Eventually, new strains will not cause as much impact, which is what we see with influenza.
Variants are like ‘running from the cops’ movies
Variants might make immunity — both vaccine and natural — less effective.
Dr. Matthew Koci, a virologist at NC State, described it this way:
Variants are like “running from the cops” movies. Someone commits a crime, and the police identify the suspect. To protect everyone, the cops begin distributing pictures to everyone in town.
In our case, that’s vaccination. It’s identifying the source of the issue and preventing further harm.
To slip past the cops, the suspect has to put on disguises.
The omicron variant could be that “Mission Impossible disguise,” where the suspect is putting on a hat and glasses to stay undetected.
Scientists don’t yet know the changes to omicron — and how it may be able to slip past the mRNA vaccines we have now.
Vaccines, boosters and tests are needed with omicron
There’s a lot scientists don’t yet know about omicron, but they do know this: Vaccines, boosters and tests are still important.
• Vaccines continue to remain important, including for ages five and up. Boosters for adults are also expected to add to the protection, Swann said.
• High-quality, well-fitting masks are also expected to reduce infections, and laboratory testing can help identify cases before they spread to others.
• Experts also believe that PCR tests are effective at detecting the omicron variant, Sickbert-Bennett said, but this is still being studied further.
Assume the variant is already in your community
“I believe that Omicron is already in the U.S.,” Swann told The News & Observer.
And based on what scientists have seen in South Africa, the variant is expected to spread quickly.
But Swann said scientists still do not yet know:
if omicron has a higher infection rate than the delta variant
the full extent to which it can evade natural immunity or vaccine immunity
whether it causes more severe disease or not
But by assuming that the variant is already in our communities, public health measures can be implemented that reduce how much we breathe the same air with those who don’t live in our households, she said.