Amira Roess Answers Early Questions on the Omicron Variant

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Amira Roess, professor in the Department of Global and Community Health, answers questions about the emerging COVID-19 Omicron variant. 

COVID Vaccine by Daniel Schludi

What is The Omicron Covid-19 variant, and when can we expect it to emerge in the US? 

The Omicron variant is a variant of the COVID-19 virus and has several mutations on the spike protein. This is of significance because the spike protein is what current vaccines and therapeutics target. These changes or mutations may have implications for transmission and effectiveness of current vaccines and therapeutics.

Every day we will learn about new cases of the Omicron variant in the United States and throughout the world. Typically, by the time we identify the first case of a variant, there are dozens if not hundreds more that have not been identified. This is an artifact of our surveillance system and our testing strategy.

What should people do differently over the holiday, in light of the new variant? 

There is a lot that we need to learn and we are gathering information quickly. Over the next several days we will have more data about the transmissibility of this variant and the possible implications of this on disease spread, and vaccine and therapeutic effectiveness. In the meantime, individuals should prioritize getting the vaccine and the booster if they are eligible and should continue to wear masks in crowded indoor settings.

Those with underlying conditions and the elderly should continue to be vigilant in order to avoid infection. If you are going to spend the holidays with individuals who are older or have multiple underlying conditions then it's extremely important that you, and they, get vaccinated and get the booster in order to minimize the chance of transmission at holiday gatherings.

What are the best ways for an individual to protect themselves and minimize the spread of the Omicron variant? 

Getting the vaccine and the booster are the most important things that you can do to protect yourself against this variant.

The World Health Organization describes Omicron as a ‘variant of concern’ as scientists work to learn more. What precautions can the Mason Community take now for protection against this new variant?

The Mason community should continue to do what it has been doing. We have a very high vaccination rate and now we need to increase our booster rate. If you have symptoms make sure that you get tested and quarantine or isolate as appropriate. We need to continue to wear our masks, especially in crowded indoor settings in order to protect ourselves and others. Remember that masks are effective in reducing the risk of transmission of covid-19 and other respiratory microbes.

It seems like things are changing every day. Why and when can we expect to know more? Could it take weeks for the initial research to be done?

We learn more every day. Each day we are identifying cases and investigating clusters. I suspect that in a week we'll have more information on the implications of the emergent variant on transmission dynamics, disease severity, and vaccine effectiveness.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that our current vaccines do seem to protect against severe disease and while this may change in the future, it does not change the fact that the Delta variant is still the dominant strain in the US and the vaccines that we have are highly effective against severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths. 

Should you cancel your holiday party and festivities? Just as we are getting excited about celebrating over the holidays, after last year’s hugely restricted activities, the Omicron variant has surfaced. Is there any need to change the plan to be with family and friends over the winter break?

For now, we do not need to change our winter holiday plans. If you and all of those at your holiday gatherings have been vaccinated and have received a booster as appropriate then you have truly done everything you can to significantly reduce the risk of infection.

The recommendations for travel are the same. Continue to wear masks when you are in indoor settings, especially in crowded settings, which includes on airplanes, buses, trains, and in airports and shopping centers. If you have symptoms avoid contact with others until you get tested. These actions continue to greatly reduce the risk of infection.

For those of us who are vaccinated, do our vaccines hold up against the Omicron variant? What about boosters?

Preliminary data suggest that individuals who have been vaccinated have mild symptoms when infected with the Omicron variant. This supports the recommendation that all eligible individuals really should get vaccinated and get the booster. We will learn more in the coming days and weeks.

All three vaccine manufacturers in the U.S. – Moderna (MRNA), Pfizer (PFE), and Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) are already conducting research to determine how their vaccines fare against Omicron. When will the results be available? 

These vaccine manufacturers have indicated that they may be able to produce a vaccine that is updated to respond to the Omicron variant in about 3 months. This timeline will be updated as more information emerges.

There is still a significant number of “unknowns” about the mutant strain. What are the next steps?

Public health departments throughout the world are working on sequencing as many samples as they can in order to assess whether or not the Omicron variant will outcompete the Delta variant, that is will become the dominant strain. We are also collecting clinical and other information from individuals infected with the emergent variant to estimate the effectiveness of current vaccines and therapeutics against it and to better understand what symptoms are common among those infected with the Omicron variant.

Is Omicron more transmissible and does it cause more severe disease? 

Right now we have very limited data on this. The Omicron cases reported from South Africa were primarily in younger adults and they tended to have mild symptoms. Younger adults infected with other variants generally have more mild symptoms than older adults and so this preliminary information, while promising, is not enough to definitively answer this question.

Fully vaccinated individuals who have been infected with the Omicron variant also seem to have no to mild symptoms and this is also promising. More data are needed though before we can have a definitive answer on this.

Should people be flexible over the holidays? 

Flexibility is always a good thing. For now, it is important to follow the vaccine recommendations and get the booster if you are eligible. The higher our vaccination rates the lower the number of vulnerable individuals. If we can reduce the infection rates then we can keep our hospitals running and We can also reduce transmission cycles. The more opportunities we have for viral transmission the more opportunities there are for mutations to occur and variance to emerge.

According to the W.H.O., Covid symptoms linked to the new Omicron variant have been described as “extremely mild.” Is this true?

There is limited information about this. The cases that have been reported so far suggest that infection with the Omicron variant may lead to mild symptoms. However, this is preliminary information and more data are needed. We will learn more in the coming days.

Currently, the U.S. has restricted travel from South Africa and 7 other Southern African countries. What recommendations do you have regarding air travel?

Individuals who plan to travel should get their boosters before doing so and should wear masks while they are in transit in order to reduce their chance of infection.

What advice do you have about wearing masks? Can a medical-grade mask help protect against Covid, colds, and flu? What should we know about the latest mask mandates?

It's a very good idea to continue to wear masks in indoor settings throughout the winter in order to reduce your chance of getting COVID-19, influenza, and other respiratory infections. Many jurisdictions have removed mask mandates or are scheduled to lift them. I would not be surprised if we saw a return to mask mandates given the increase in cases, the emergence of the Omicron variant, and the fact that we are entering cold and flu season.

Masks are simple to wear and are effective in reducing the transmission of respiratory pathogens.