‘I’m an Epidemiologist, and This Is What We Know About Omicron So Far’

Photo: Getty Images/Tony Anderson
On November 24, South African officials announced the detection of B.1.1.529, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Two days later, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the new variant, called Omicron, as a "variant of concern" due to the unknown nature of its transmissibility and effects. Information about the Omicron variant is evolving rapidly, but so far, over 23 countries, including the United States, have reported cases of the variant.

To help answer your most pressing omicron variant questions, we asked two experts—Karen Edwards, PhD, a professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of California, Irvine, and Sri Banerjee, MD, PhD, a faculty member at Walden University's School of Health Sciences—to explain what the medical community understands about omicron thus far.

Experts In This Article
  • Karen Edwards, PhD, a University of California, Irvine professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Population Health & Disease Prevention
  • Sri Banerjee, MD, PhD, MPH, FACE, Sri Banerjee, MD, PhD, MPH, FACE, faculty member in Walden University’s PhD in Public Health program. Dr. Banerjee is an epidemiologist with 20 years of experience, and is currently studying COVID-19.

1. What is the Omicron variant?

The Omicron variant is a new SARS-CoV-2 virus mutation first identified in Botswana, a country just north of South Africa. Because this particular strain of the virus is so new, researchers don't yet know how transmissible or severe it is or how it compares to Delta (a variant that appeared in the summertime and rapidly became the most common COVID-19 strain).

We know that viruses mutate to survive—and Omicron is likely one of many variants that we will see in the months (and even years) to come, Dr. Edwards says. "The way viruses have evolved, and the reason why they're so successful in terms of sticking around, is that they continue to mutate," she explains. "When a virus like [SARS-CoV-2] is circulating in a population, the more times it basically replicates itself, the more opportunities there are for mistakes. Those mistakes are what we call 'mutations.'"

Sometimes mutations don't have a significant impact, but other times they can spread and cause severe illness, she says. Researchers in South Africa and beyond are hard at work trying to understand what sets this particular mutation apart. "[Omicron] may even be more efficient at transmitting itself, and it may surpass Delta—but we just don't know yet, and that's why this is a variant of concerned," says Dr. Edwards.

Ultimately, SARS-CoV-2 will do what it needs to do to survive, so everyone must take public safety measures—like getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.

2. Who should be most worried about the Omicron variant? What populations are most at risk?

Dr. Edwards says it's very likely that the same populations most vulnerable to other COVID-19 variants will also be the most at-risk. That includes adults over the age of 65, and people with cancer, chronic illnesses, HIV, or diabetes—among other conditions.

3. How can I protect myself and my family against Omicron?

"People are probably tired of hearing epidemiologists and public health officials say the same things, but the same things apply," Dr. Edwards says. To protect yourself, you should wear your mask over your nose and mouth and social distance when possible, she says. Additionally, practice good hand hygiene, and if you're coughing or sneezing, make sure you cover your nose and mouth so you're not spreading illness.

And above all else? Get vaccinated. "We don't have any evidence yet about how effective the vaccines are against Omicron, but they should provide some level of protection," she says.

4. What about riskier activities, like eating indoors or going to the movie theater? Should I skip those?

Since we don't yet know how transmissible and severe Omicron is, it's hard to make definitive recommendations. In general, Dr. Edwards says that vaccinated people should still wear masks indoors as much as possible and put them on outside if they're in a crowd. If you're someone in a vulnerable population, it's best to consult your doctor about what precautions make sense for you.

Those who are not vaccinated should once again consider getting vaccinated or take extra precautions like staying at home, practicing social distancing, and wearing a mask.  If you're hanging out in a crowded place without a vaccine, you're five times more likely to contract COVID-19, and thus more likely to play a role in creating potentially dangerous variants. "We will continue to see mutations develop in largely unvaccinated groups because that's where the virus spreads most easily," says Dr. Edwards.

5. What should I tell my unvaccinated family members about Omicron?

While Dr. Edwards doesn't have a magic trick to help you convince unvaccinated family members to take the vaccine, she says that framing the conversation as an issue of family and public safety may help. "Even if they, themselves, don't feel like they need to be vaccinated, they're impacting not just themselves, but everybody else—including their family members and other people that they come into contact with," she says. For example, maybe someone in your family who you're about to spend the holidays with has cancer or a compromised immune system. Let your concern for them be the center of your conversation, and see what happens.

Then, if they seem open to talking about it, you can give them the 411 on how not being vaccinated contributes to more mutations, like Omicron, and why that's a problem.

6. Should I cancel my current and future travel plans now—or wait until we know more?

If you're wondering whether or not it's safe to travel with Omicron now circulating, you're not likely to get a definitive "yes" from any epidemiologist. There are too many unknown factors, and that's especially true if you're asking them to predict how safe it will be to pack your bags next spring or summer. If you do decide to travel, take all the usual precautions. "Beyond being vaccinated, wear your mask, do all the social distancing ... and commit to all the other measures," says Dr. Edwards. She also recommends taking a look at the cases and restrictions in your travel destination. If they have high COVID-19 rates or minimum restrictions, think long and hard about whether or not the trip will be enjoyable for you.

7. Is there a possibility of a lockdown in the future?

"It's hard to tell," says Dr. Edwards. "Right now, we're trying to evaluate Omicron and its properties. Is it more transmissible? Is it more serious? How effective are the vaccines against it? I think knowing the answers to those questions will kind of drive that question." If the idea of going back into lockdown makes you feel upset, that's completely understandable. But keep in mind that, while we can't control everything about how the virus is spreading, we can control our actions."We just have to do our due diligence as citizens," says Dr. Banerjee. "There are places globally with no access to the vaccine, so if we do have access, we need to do our due diligence and take our vaccines."

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