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What we know about the Omicron Variant

Article and Photo Courtesy: National Urban League

A new COVID variant is causing a surge of infections around the globe and the first case has been detected in the United States. Here is what you need to know, courtesy of NBC:

Is omicron more dangerous than other variants?

Omicron contains troubling characteristics that might make it more transmissible — particularly among people who have already gotten and recovered from COVID, according to the WHO.

Omicron has more than 30 spike protein mutations, compared with the original virus — significantly more than the delta variant. The function of those mutations isn’t fully known yet, but some of them could make it easier for the virus to infiltrate human cells.

The WHO noted on Friday that “infections have increased steeply” in South Africa, in tandem with the discovery of omicron. Only 24% of the population in South Africa is vaccinated, compared to 59% of the U.S. population. Still, other countries can expect a similar pattern to unfold as the variant spreads.

If true, that could mean omicron’s mutations make it more easily transmissible, but less severe. (According to the WHO, there’s no consensus yet that omicron symptoms differ from other variants.)

Do the vaccines already protect against omicron?

It’s too soon to tell — which isn’t the reason for panic. It just means scientists are working on finding out.

Given omicron’s plentiful mutations, it could theoretically evade vaccine-induced protection. Bancel said he anticipates a drop in vaccine effectiveness. Researchers will likely have answers within the next two weeks by testing antibodies from people who are vaccinated, and seeing if they are capable of neutralizing the virus.

Still, President Joe Biden instructed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday to use the “fastest process available without cutting any corners,” to make omicron-specific vaccines available, if necessary.

It’s unclear who would be eligible for those vaccines, if they eventually get approved.

Moderna says it’s already working on one, which could be ready to ship by early 2022, if necessary. On Monday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that his company is waiting for more data before acting — but could have its version ready in 100 days.

Non-vaccine treatments could also be a mixed bag. Pfizer’s Covid antiviral pill, Paxlovid — which has yet to be approved by the FDA — might work against variants like omicron, because it’s designed to address spike mutations, Bourla said.

But fellow drugmaker Regeneron said Tuesday that its monoclonal antibody cocktail, along with any other similar drugs, could be less effective against omicron than other variants. The company said it’s exploring other alternatives.

Should you wait on getting a booster until there’s an omicron-specific shot?

No. Get your booster as soon as you’re eligible, regardless of any omicron developments.

Even partial protection is better than no protection, and the longer you wait, the more you risk getting infected by another Covid variant — including delta, which remains dangerous.

In a statement on Monday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky specifically cited omicron as a reason why eligible people should get their boosters. Since the booster shot lifts your body’s level of antibodies high enough to protect against every other known variant, it should give you “at least some degree, and maybe a lot of protection” against omicron, Fauci said.

What should you do differently to protect yourself against omicron?

Getting vaccinated and boosted, plus wearing a mask in public indoor settings, remain the best ways to protect yourself and the people around you.

Travel bans cannot completely prevent the virus from entering the country, but they “delay it enough to get us better prepared,” Fauci said. Lockdowns aren’t currently being discussed, Biden said Monday.

Even if omicron gets bad, it probably won’t undo the world’s Covid-fighting progress.

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