Story at a glance
- The omicron variant was declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
- Scientists all over the world are racing to understand how omicron responds to the currently available COVID-19 vaccines.
- Health officials are stressing patience, as time is still needed to test samples and understand how omicron behaves and is different from earlier strains of COVID-19.
Scientists around the world are scrambling to understand how the current roster of COVID-19 vaccines stand up against the omicron variant, the new variant of concern that’s been identified in multiple countries.
The omicron variant, the latest variant of concern declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), is currently being studied by scientists all over the world. It’s too early to tell yet whether the currently available COVID-19 vaccines will provide protection against omicron.
According to a technical paper published Sunday by WHO, the omicron variant is considered, “highly divergent,” because it carries 26 to 32 mutations on its spike protein, something that is concerning to scientists as it may be associated with the virus’s ability to evade immunity and increase transmissibility.
However, WHO emphasized that there is still a high level of uncertainty with omicron and, for now, scientists need time to study the new variant.
One South African researcher, Tulio de Oliveira, told The New York Times that within 36 hours of the first signs of omicron potentially becoming a serious health risk, researchers analysed samples from 100 infected patients and alerted health officials around the world.
Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were also quick to respond to omicron, with Moderna releasing a statement the same day the WHO announced omicron as an official variant of concern. The pharmaceutical company said it was conducting tests of its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine against omicron and expects results in the coming weeks.
Pfizer-BioNTech made a similar statement to Reuters, saying the company is expecting test results in the coming weeks that will determine whether its current COVID-19 vaccine may need some tweaks in order to combat omicron. If that proves necessary, the company said it could begin shipping a new vaccine in approximately 100 days.
As the effectiveness of vaccines against omicron remains uncertain, WHO recommended that vaccination efforts be “intensified” for all eligible populations. The continued use of masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing was also recommended as variants continue to emerge throughout the pandemic.
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