Clinically Speaking: Omicron Variant, Vaccines and Boosters

The World Health Organization named Omicron as the first COVID-19 variant of concern since Delta. We discuss the new variant and new CDC guidelines for booster shots.

A New COVID-19 Variant: Omicron

Omicron – or the B.1.1.529 of novel coronavirus – has already spurred international travel bans. On November 26, the World Health Organization named Omicron the first variant of concern since the Delta variant.

First detected in South Africa, Omicron is now by far the dominant variant for new cases there. To date, at least 23 other countries — including the U.S. and Canada — are reporting cases of the new variant.

Omicron carries many more genetic mutations along its spike protein than prior COVID-19 strains. The spike protein is the component in a virus that allows it to penetrate host cells and cause infection. The greater the number of mutations, the more concern about how quickly the variant could spread. According to reports, Omicron has anywhere from 43 to 50 mutations, compared to Delta’s 18.

While variants in RNA viruses are common, what’s important to determine is how they impact the following three areas – transmissibility, severity of illness, and vaccine efficacy.

W.H.O. experts say it is still early to determine whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible or better able to evade vaccine protection. And questions remain about whether this variant causes more severe illness than others. In South Africa, there are reports of Omicron cases with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. To date, no deaths have been reported.

Health officials, leading scientists, and pharmaceutical companies globally are working vigilantly and collaboratively to answer those questions for the Omicron variant, just as they have with other variants throughout the pandemic.

Two factors driving the continued emergence of COVID-19 variants are low community vaccination rates and lack of herd immunity, which means that the virus has more opportunities to mutate. In many places, the low vaccination rates are a result of vaccine inequity between wealthier and poorer nations.

We expect information about the Omicron variant to evolve daily. So, check the CDC website for the latest news and look for our update after the new year.

The Latest on COVID-19 Vaccines

Even without the emergence of Omicron, new confirmed cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in some states as the colder weather forces people indoors and the holiday season goes into full swing. Leading health officials warn that we could potentially experience a fifth wave of coronavirus infections.

Our best defense against the spread of COVID-19 is vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone ages 5 and older get a COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, more than 60% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. The higher that percentage goes, the more our communities will be protected. However, 60 million eligible people in the U.S. remain unvaccinated.

As for vaccine booster shots, on November 19, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices expanded recommendations that all adults ages 18 years and older get a booster — a critical next step in providing increased protection against COVID-19 illness and death.

Also, on November 30, Pfizer asked federal regulators to authorize its COVID-19 booster vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds, meaning that several million teenagers could become eligible for the shot in the coming weeks.

Anyone who has questions or concerns about COVID vaccines or boosters should consult their health care provider.

After nearly two years of taking precautions, we understand why many people are experiencing “COVID fatigue”. But we can’t let our guard down now. Our best defense for minimizing the spread of all strains of COVID-19 continues to be vaccines and boosters for everyone who is eligible, as well as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and masking when indoors, particularly around persons of unknown vaccine status.

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