The new omicron variant of COVID-19 has prompted travel bans, a warning from the World Health Organization and many unanswered questions as doctors try to learn more about how dangerous it could be.
Dr. Daniel Rhoads, head of microbiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said much of the concern is because the variant “seems to be outcompeting delta,” a variant that’s quickly crowded out all variants before it.
But he emphasizes that the emergence of omicron is the “same song, different verse” when looking at how COVID-19 has evolved over the past two years. And experts are again working to determine vaccine efficacy, where the variant exists and how it spreads.
Here is what Rhoads said doctors know so far:
Why is this variant so concerning?
Rhoads said the variant seems to be outcompeting delta in South Africa.
“So the past couple months, it’s been all delta, all the time,” he said. “So knowing there’s another variant that now is potentially competing with delta is concerning.”
How is this variant different than or the same as the previous variants?
Rhoads said the spike protein gene, which is the protein gene in the virus that attaches to a person’s cells and which the vaccines target, has a lot of mutations.
“And a lot of the mutations have been seen in other variants that have caused problems,” he said. “Some of the mutations are new to us, and we’re not sure exactly what it means in terms of if it will cause any kind of difference in how COVID works with omicron.”
Are the symptoms different with omicron?
Rhoads said from what he’s heard, it’s too soon to tell.
“The concern is that it might spread well,” he said. “It might spread better than delta. Just knowing it can compete with delta in the population is concerning, because none of the other variants have been able to keep up with delta.”
Why so many variants? Why does this keep happening?
Rhoads said “we should expect it to keep happening” as long as there is a lot of virus circulating. Mutations happen randomly in the viruses, and many times don’t help the virus at all.
“But every now and then, it stumbles on a mistake that sticks around,” he said. “We call those mistakes mutations. With COVID, it’s a new virus, so we as humans and the virus are learning how to interact with each other. So the virus is changing over time. Also, there are a lot of people who have COVID, so there’s a lot of opportunity for mutations because millions of people have had the disease and (there are) millions of virus particles in each one of those individuals.”
Do tests detect the variant?
PCR tests should be able to detect the variant even with the mutations. Antigen tests still need to be studied, because they look at the shape of the virus. With the mutations, the shape of the virus can change, said Rhoads.
Are the current vaccines effective against omicron?
Rhoads said there isn’t good data yet to determine that.
“My guess is, from what I know about omicron and how the vaccines work so far, my best guess is it will work,” he said. “How well it will work needs to be studied.”
Anything we should be doing differently?
Rhoads said he would encourage people to continue to be careful and remember that delta is still affecting the population.
“I think there’s a lot of interset around omicron,” he said. “I’m interested, too, but delta is causing a lot of problems right now. We had the most positives we detected since last winter just yesterday. So there is a lot of COVID around currently.”
He emphasized that there are more unknowns than knowns.
“It’s still SARS-CoV-2,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with this just about two years now in the world. This is the next iteration of it. The things we have found to be true with the last two years will probably remain to be true. This will continue to spread through respiratory droplets and potentially aerosols. Immunity is important, and we can get that through vaccination. We’re going to continue to study that to see how the vaccines work against this new variant.”