Story at a glance

  • Omicron is a newly detected variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that is causing the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • It was first detected in South Africa, although its origins are still unknown.
  • Governments are responding with travel regulations and public health measures.

When news about the omicron variant broke, people and governments around the world sat up to pay attention. Here’s a rundown of what we know at the moment.

Signs that it may be more transmissible

Although the early data is from a small sample size and mostly in younger people who are more socially active, some experts think that the omicron variant could potentially be more transmissible. Kristian G. Andersen, who is an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute, says in an email to The Washington Post, “The only thing I have somewhat moderate confidence in is that I think this’ll be the most immune evasive variant we have seen to date. Other than that, it’s simply too early to tell — on a scale of 1-10 of how bad this is, it’s either a 3, a 10, or anywhere in-between.”

Omicron may have been spreading already

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has been found in 30 countries, including the U.S. The first U.S. case was found in California. The patient is a vaccinated individual who arrived from South Africa on Nov. 22. They are in isolation, and health officials are conducting contact tracing.

Experts think that the variant could have been spreading in Europe prior to detection. All this could mean that travel bans restricting people from arriving from countries in southern Africa may not work at this point. The CDC announced that it might require travelers into the U.S. to show a negative test result from within one day of departure. The current requirement is within three days. The Biden administration is also considering requiring people to quarantine upon arrival.


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Omicron is not a descendant of the delta variant

The omicron variant of the coronavirus does not seem to be a descendant of the delta variant, as far as scientists can assume. It does share some of the same mutations, but it seems to have come about from a different lineage. Experts are still unsure how or where omicron developed.

“We’re in a delta pandemic now. Does this outcompete delta? To be determined,” said Robert F. Garry Jr., a virologist at Tulane University, to the Post. “Delta’s a pretty good virus, right? It’s good in terms of being transmissible. This one would have to show some extraordinary characteristics to outcompete it.”

Vaccines and testing remain important in the fight

Scientists are collecting more data to understand whether the currently available vaccines are working against the omicron variant. It could take a few weeks to be able to get a fuller picture of the situation.

In the meantime, the Biden administration is pushing for unvaccinated people to get vaccinated and for people who are eligible to get booster shots.

“Get boosted now,” said Anthony Fauci, according to The New York Times. “We may not need a variant-specific boost.”

The Biden administration is preparing to make an announcement that would make at-home rapid tests refundable for people with private health insurance, according to the Times. They would also call on employers to give employees paid time off to get booster shots.


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Published on Dec 02, 2021