What we know so far about the omicron variant

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The new COVID strain is 'cause for concern, not a cause for panic,' President Joe Biden said Monday.

In remarks from the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden urged Americans not to panic about the newly discovered omicron coronavirus variant, projecting calm as reports of variant cases around the globe continue to pile up.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and his chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci. "We'll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion."

First flagged by a doctor in South Africa, omicron cases have since been discovered everywhere from Australia to Italy to Canada, and the president over the weekend moved to restrict air travel for non-U.S. citizens seeking to enter the country from South Africa and seven other African nations. Though there are not yet any documented examples of the new strain here, the president on Monday acknowledged it's "almost inevitable" that omicron cases will be identified domestically.

There's lots of information to digest about the new variant — and many things we still don't know. But experts stress that right now, the best ways to protect yourself remain the same as they've always been: washing your hands frequently, wearing a mask indoors and in crowded spaces, and, most important, getting vaccinated and boosted when you're eligible.

What is omicron and where did it come from?

The first confirmed case of variant B.1.1.529, or omicron, was identified in South Africa on Nov. 9 and reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24. On Friday, the United Nations global health agency classified it as a "variant of concern," noting the "large number" of mutations in this strain are "concerning." In a technical brief to member states Monday, WHO assessed that the overall global risk of omicron is "very high."

Public health experts have stressed that it's too early to tell how disruptive the new variant will be. The good news is that it appears to have been identified fairly early in its transmission, and that information was shared with global authorities expeditiously. Omicron cases are also able to be detected by the most-accurate existing COVID diagnostic tests, according to WHO, meaning we likely won't need new ways to test for the virus.

Is omicron more transmissible than past strains like alpha and delta?

It's too soon to tell exactly how transmissible omicron is, but there are early warning signs it could spread more easily, including dozens of mutations in the virus's spike protein. Data from South Africa's national public health institute shows that omicron cases made up 76% of all those sequenced in the country in November, meaning the variant spread widely and quickly. Still, the agency cautioned that the total number of cases that underwent sequencing that month was low, so people shouldn't read into those findings too much.

After Biden met with his medical advisers over the weekend, the White House noted it will take "approximately two more weeks" to get more definitive information about the variant's transmissibility.

Is omicron more deadly than other variants?

We know even less about how deadly the omicron variant is, or whether it could lead to more severe cases of COVID-19. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first spotted the new variant in patients, according to the BBC, said those she'd seen infected with it displayed "extremely mild symptoms." But more research is needed to determine the exact characteristics of an omicron infection and how it might impact more vulnerable populations, including older adults and those with immunodeficiencies, since those populations are more at risk of severe infection from other variants.

Do existing vaccines protect against the omicron variant?

Again, it's too soon to say. In his speech Monday, Biden projected optimism that existing vaccines will provide at least "a degree of protection against severe disease." But the variant's mutations are a cause for concern.

"Based on lots of work people have done on other variants and other mutations, we can be pretty confident these mutations are going to cause an appreciable drop in antibody neutralization," Dr. Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told the New York Times.

While scientists continue to study how effective existing vaccines are against omicron, the White House is engaged in discussions with major vaccine makers about "accelerating their development and deployment" of vaccines or boosters to address omicron, Biden said.

There is good news on the horizon about treatments for COVID-19 other than vaccines. FDA advisors will meet Tuesday to discuss emergency approval of Merck's COVID pill, which has been shown to reduce the risk of severe infection in those with mild or moderate cases of COVID-19. Pfizer has meanwhile developed a similar pill that has demonstrated even better results, and officials are expected to take up the approval process for that treatment in the coming weeks. Though further study is needed to determine how these will fare against the new variant, experts have projected optimism about these pills' ability to combat the pandemic more broadly.

I'm worried about omicron. What can I do to protect myself?

Right now, experts say the best thing you can do to protect yourself is get vaccinated and encourage everyone around you to get vaccinated as well. If you're 18 or older and received your last COVID shot more than six months ago, you're now eligible for a booster, which may increase your level of protection against new variants like omicron. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday strengthened its booster recommendations in response to the new variant, suggesting that its discovery "further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19."

Beyond that, existing strategies like frequent hand-washing and mask-wearing in indoor spaces remain the best way to prevent COVID spread. All the news about variants can also be taxing to your mental health, and research has shown the incidence of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders increased during the pandemic. So, experts say, it's OK to feel a little overwhelmed. Both the CDC and Mental Health America have resources to help alleviate pandemic-related mental health concerns.

Should I expect more lockdowns or pandemic restrictions to be announced?

Biden and his top officials have said repeatedly that major lockdowns at the federal level are off the table "for now." The president said he imposed the travel restrictions on African nations to buy his advisors more time to study the new variant and encourage vaccination, but conceded that "travel restrictions can slow the spread of omicron but cannot prevent it."

Public health officials continue to recommend that everyone wear a mask indoors and in crowded settings, and it's likely we'll see some places reimpose mask mandates if cases continue to rise. The New York City health commissioner on Monday, for example, issued an advisory that "STRONGLY" recommended masks be worn indoors at all times, but stopped short of formally mandating them.

But the new variant comes as Americans are increasingly tiring of pandemic restrictions and Republican officials in states across the country have taken steps to limit the ability of local jurisdictions to impose new health restrictions. Even Washington, D.C., Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser is standing by her decision to end the District's indoor mask mandate, despite pushback from council members and other local officials.

I was already worried about delta and now there's this new omicron variant. Why did it develop and will this keep happening?

Variants are more likely to develop when a virus is spreading widely, which happens when there are large proportions of the population unvaccinated or not taking other precautions, such as masking and observing social distancing. Scientists don't know exactly where the new variant came from, but health experts say it is clear that the way to prevent future ones from developing is to get everyone vaccinated as quickly as possible, prioritizing the areas with the lowest vaccination rates.

With a vaccination rate of about 24%, however, South Africa is actually among the better-vaccinated countries on the continent, and the nation does not face a shortage of vaccine supplies like other nearby nations do. Its issue is one the United States faces as well: how to encourage vaccine-hesitant individuals to get the shots.

Western pharmaceutical companies like Moderna, meanwhile, have resisted calls to share their vaccine intellectual property and allow vaccine doses to be manufactured locally, instead donating doses to countries' governments. Experts believe enabling countries to manufacture vaccines themselves would help solve the problem of shortages.

One thing that is clear right now: No individual or political party is responsible for omicron's development, despite claims by some Republicans that Democrats are only raising the alarm to help them win in the 2022 midterms.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.