In early December, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 began to plague South Africa, the country in which it was first identified.
Because the variant is relatively new, it is currently unknown how deadly the strain is. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the omicron variant is more transmissible than other COVID-19 variants, and early research suggests that each person who contracts the variant will transmit it to 2 to 4 more people.
It is not unusual for viruses to develop different variants. Over time, viruses mutate, and some of these mutations result in new variants of the virus. While some variants are not long-lasting and disappear naturally, others are more enduring and continue to spread and infect people. As time has passed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has had more time to mutate and therefore produce more variants such as Omicron.
On November 26th, the World Health Organization declared the Omicron variant a variant of concern. Before the variant was discovered in South Africa, the nation was reporting only several hundred cases daily. However, in recent weeks, that daily infection count has risen to about 4,500 due to the rise of Omicron. Since its discovery in South Africa, the Omicron variant has spread to about 60 additional countries.
Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, has seen some of the most worrisome signs internationally as it pertains to the Omicron variant. The U.K.’s health agency has estimated that Omicron cases, which are proportionally low in the country, are doubling every few days. It is predicted that half of the U.K.’s cases will be Omicron as of mid-December.
Although the United Kingdom has a vaccination rate of 70-percent, officials are still concerned. According to Jeffrey Barrett, the director of the Genomics Initiative at the U.K.’s Wellcome Sanger Institute, “The quick steady spread is just a very clear signal that this variant can spread exponentially even in highly vaccinated populations.”
Furthermore, the Omicron variant has recently found its way across the Atlantic to the United States. At the time that this article was written, the Omicron variant has infected Americans in 25 states. Of the 43 Americans who have been infected with the Omicron variant, only one has been hospitalized. However, more than 75% of those 43 patients were fully vaccinated. Additionally, more than 50% of those who contracted the variant are between the ages of 18 and 39.
If you are vaccinated, then you should not worry excessively about Omicron. While breakthrough infections amongst vaccinated people are indeed possibilities, all FDA-approved or authorized vaccines are effective at preventing severe effects from the variant such as hospitalization and death. Most Omicron patients in the United States thus far have reported mild symptoms including coughs and runny noses.
With that being said, it is still important to note that even fully vaccinated individuals can spread the Omicron variant to others. If you are not vaccinated, the rise of the Omicron variant serves as a reminder of how important vaccinations can be to keep yourself healthy. This holiday season, be mindful of social distancing and take measures to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
“CDC Finds First Handful of U.S. Omicron Cases Have Been Mostly Mild.” NBC News, 10 Dec. 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/cdc-report-omicron-finds-first-handful-cases-us-mostly-mild-rcna8352. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021.
“Update on Omicron.” World Health Organization, 28 Nov. 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021.
“What Omicron’s Fast Spread Could Mean for the U.S. - and the World.” NPR, 10 Dec. 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/12/10/1062498420/what-omicrons-fast-spread-could-mean-for-the-u-s-and-the-world. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021.
“What You Need to Know About Variants.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 Dec. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/about-variants.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fvariants%2Fvariant.html. Accessed 11 Dec. 2021.
About the Author:
Karenna Marnik is a sophomore student. Over the past year, Karenna has developed an interest in journalism and has even contributed to her school’s newspaper. Karenna has a passion for sailing, as she has participated in the sport for seven years. She also enjoys a lifestyle filled with exercise and the outdoors, particularly hiking.