Scientists around the world are rushing to figure out the Omicron variant, and there are clearer signs than a week ago.
Today’s newsletter will attempt to answer four big questions about Omicron, with the help of experts. The answers come with a caveat: There is still a lot of uncertainty about almost every aspect of the variant. As scientists learn more, I will continue to update you.
Does Omicron spread faster than previous variants? Yes, in all likelihood.
The number of Covid cases is skyrocketing in South Africa, for example. It is still possible that it is a mirage – and that the world confuses a more normal increase in cases with the effects of a new variant. (Surges often occur for mysterious reasons.) But the evidence for a faster spread of Omicron seems strong.
âData from South Africa suggests that the Omicron variant spreads faster than Delta,â Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told me. Dr. Rebecca Wurtz of the University of Minnesota said, âOmicron is more contagious. “
A bigger unknown is why it is spreading quickly, and there are two plausible answers. The first is that Omicron is technically more contagious – that it spreads faster among people without immunity than previous variants. The second is known as immune evasion; he describes the idea that people who have been vaccinated and those who have already been infected get Omicron more often than they have contracted previous versions of the virus.
Both explanations could be true, and many scientists believe they probably both are. But the facts are not clear, and one of the two explanations may turn out to be much more significant than the other. âSummary: There is no doubt that Omicron is spreading faster than Delta; we still don’t know 100 percent why, âDr. Robert Wachter of the University of California, San Francisco told me.
Is the Omicron more severe than the previous variants? Probably not. But there is less consensus on this point than on the first question.
Some scientists believe it is simply too early to know if the average person who contracts Omicron is getting sicker than the average person who has contracted previous versions of the Covid virus. “It’s only speculation at this point,” Dr. Paul Sax of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told me.
Critical Covid illness often takes a week or more to develop, and the world has known Omicron for less than two weeks. âWe just may not have had enough time to watch serious disease develop,â said Dr. Aaron Richterman of the University of Pennsylvania. The first studies of Omicron patients also came disproportionately from South Africa, where the population is rather young and where many people have already been infected with Delta. Both groups are unlikely to get very sick.
“What is difficult to assess at the moment,” said Jennifer Nuzzo of Johns Hopkins University, “is how it will play out if or when older and more vulnerable people become infected.”
But other scientists believe the early signs are clearer and more positive. On the contrary, they say, Omicron may be smoother than previous variants. Hospitalization and death rates in South Africa have not skyrocketed, even though cases have. Strangely enough, patients report less loss of taste and smell.
Dr David Dowdy, another Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, told me he had close research collaboration with scientists in Tshwane, a South African town at the epicenter of the outbreak. His colleagues told him that hospitalizations and oxygen demand are lower than in previous waves. âI think the signs are actually extremely optimistic,â he said.
You will hear similar messages in these Bloomberg interviews with South African scientists. “It’s the start, but I’m less panicked,” said Richard Friedland, managing director of the country’s largest network of private healthcare providers. “It’s different for me on the pitch.”
Either way, I think it’s a mistake to assume that Omicron is more serious than earlier versions of the virus – as people often do when they hear about a new variant. “So far the signals are a little encouraging regarding gravity,” Dr Anthony Fauci said over the weekend on CNN.
3. Risks for the vaccinated
So are vaccinated people protected or not? The answer depends on the meaning of “protected”. Is he protected from any Covid infection – or serious illness?
Evidence so far suggests that Omicron is more likely to infect those vaccinated than previous versions of the virus, as I mentioned above. Yet there is still no sign that Omicron will cause a significant portion of those vaccinated to get severe versions of Covid.
“I think vaccines will resist, not so much infection as they are serious illness,” Dr Eric Topol of Scripps Research told me. Dowdy of Johns Hopkins put it this way: âOur immune system is designed to protect us against disease, not the slightest infection. “
The situation may be similar for unvaccinated people who have had an infection before – or they may be more vulnerable than those vaccinated against severe Covid. It’s not clear.
A worrying postscript is that even seemingly mild Covid infections can prove fatal for vulnerable people, such as the elderly. The flu kills many older people for the same reason.
A second problem is that immunity in people who have been vaccinated and previously infected seems to really wane over time. “Our effective vaccination rate is dropping” due to the decline in immunity, Topol noted.
All of this makes the case for vaccination, even if you have been infected, and the booster, if you are eligible. âPeople have to be told to get boosted now and not to wait the three to four months for a specific Omicron vaccine,â Wachter said.
Do Covid tests, including PCR tests and rapid home tests, still work? Yes, according to the signs so far.
Assuming this holds true, it will be very helpful. âOmicron’s spread will put a lot more emphasis on rapid testing, just like new oral drugs,â Wachter said.
At the end of the line
The first signs can be misleading, and we’ll know more in a few weeks.
For now, those vaccinated can reasonably continue to behave as before, but many should feel the urgency for booster shots. The elderly and other vulnerable people, such as those receiving treatment for cancer, should continue to be cautious and ask those around them to get tested frequently.
Unvaccinated people remain at significant risk of serious illness. About 1,000 Americans have died from Covid every day in recent weeks, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.
Find the cases and number of deaths for your county here.
More virus news:
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Thank you for spending part of your morning with The Times. Until tomorrow. – David
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