Omicron variant: What are the symptoms; are vaccines effective; what we know now

A new variant of the COVID-19 virus that has researchers concerned has now been seen in 10 countries, though not yet reported in the United States.

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The variant, named “omicron” by the World Health Organization on Friday, was first identified in South Africa and, according to researchers, has more than 50 variations from the original COVID-19 virus.

Those variations, or mutations, are concerning to scientists who believe the omicron variant could be more easily transmitted. COVID-19 has killed 777,000 Americans to date.

Here’s what we know now about the omicron variant:

Where did it come from?

Last week, international health officials were notified by health officials in South Africa of a new variant that showed a number of mutations from the original COVID-19 virus.

On Nov. 9, a specimen of SARS-CoV-2 taken from an infected patient in Botswana was revealed to be a novel (or new) variant, initially called B.1.1.529.

Health officials in South Africa tracked the variant to several provinces and formally reported the variant to the WHO on Nov. 24.

How did it get its name?

After the variant was reported to the WHO, the organization held an emergency meeting to review the information it had and to determine the seriousness of the variant.

On Friday, the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) designated B.1.1.529 a “Variant of Concern” (VOC), the highest alert category for an emerging coronavirus variant, and gave it the name omicron — a letter in the Greek alphabet.

How many mutations does omicron have, and what does that mean?

The omicron variant has more than 50 mutations from the original coronavirus that caused COVID-19, according to information from South African health officials.

One mutation makes the virus less likely to be recognized by antibodies that fight the infection. It also has a mutation that allows it to better attach itself to cells.

“This new variant ... seems to spread very quick,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response & Innovation, and a genetics researcher at Stellenbosch University, said on Twitter.

According to Dr. Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, the number of mutations isn’t necessarily a problem likely to cause a person to become seriously ill.

“The number of mutations per se does not mean that the new variant will cause any problems; although it may make it more likely to look different to the immune system,” English said in a statement.

Will current vaccines work on omicron?

It is too soon to tell if current COVID-19 vaccines will be effective against the omicron variant, because of the mutations to the spike protein.

The mutations that omicron has suggests that the vaccines could be less effective against the variant.

“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, referring to the body’s ability to attack an invading virus.

“My expectation would be that the mutations in this variant are not going to ablate or completely escape that type of antibody neutralization” from vaccines or prior infection, Bloom told The Washington Post.

“Regardless of whether or not this new variant ends up spreading, I would suggest that people do what they can to minimize their chances of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2,” Bloom added, referring to the virus by its technical name. “There are certain obvious things you can do: Get vaccinated, get a booster vaccination, wear a mask.”

The CDC has said everyone age 18 and older “should” receive the booster.

The leading vaccines against the disease — Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson — target the spike protein, where the omicron variant seems to have the most mutations.

If the mutations make the virus less likely to be recognized by the body’s defense mechanisms, then that could be a problem for vaccines.

COVID-19 vaccines are made to identify parts of the COVID-19 spike protein, then spur the body to kick in its defense mechanisms to fight the virus.

According to some researchers, there have been many breakthrough cases, where a person who has been vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine still gets the virus. This suggests that the variant may be more transmissible, but possibly not as severe.

“There have been a number, a significantly large number, of breakthroughs, people who are fully vaccinated being infected,” Barry Schoub, chairman of the government’s COVID-19 council, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “Those so far have been mild.”

So far there has been no information released that indicates the variant is widely resistant to the vaccines.

If it evades vaccines, how quickly can we get a vaccine against it?

If current vaccines are not as effective against the omicron variant and an omicron-specific vaccine is needed, the chief medical officer of Moderna told “Good Morning America” on Monday that Moderna could begin testing and making an omicron-specific vaccine in two to three months.

“It’s going to take some weeks, you know, two to three months is probably what we’re looking at to be able to really begin to test it and manufacture it,” Dr. Paul Burton said.

“How transmissible is it? We think it’s probably quite transmissible. But how severe is the disease it causes? We don’t really know the answer to that question yet. And will it be neutralizable, can we contain it with the currently available vaccines? So, we at Moderna and other vaccine manufacturers here in the U.S. and around the world are testing samples from people who have received our vaccines against the strains.”

Other pharmaceutical firms have plans in place to adapt their vaccines, if needed.

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they believe they would be able to tweak their vaccine to better fight a variant in around 100 days.

What are the symptoms of the omicron variant?

Patients who contracted omicron have complained of fatigue, head and body aches. Some have sore throats and coughs.

Those who have had the original COVID-19 virus or its delta variant have had more severe symptoms such as loss of taste and smell, low oxygen levels, elevated pulse rates and severe headaches.

According to Reuters, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, said on Sunday that symptoms of the omicron variant were so far mild and could be treated at home.

Coetzee said a patient on Nov. 18 reported at her clinic being “extremely fatigued” for two days with body aches and headache.

“Symptoms at that stage was very much related to normal viral infection, and because we haven’t seen COVID-19 for the past eight to 10 weeks, we decided to test,” she said, adding that the patient and his family later tested positive.

Coetzee went on to tell Reuters, “We have seen a lot of delta patients during the third wave, and this (the omicron variant) doesn’t fit in the clinical picture,” she said, adding she alerted the National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD) on the same day with the clinical results.

“Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home,” she said.

How concerned should we be?

While scientists have reacted quickly to the omicron variant by shutting down travel between several countries in Africa, it is not yet known if the variant is more transmissible than other variants or the original virus, if it can evade current vaccines, or if it is more deadly.

The emergence of the omicron variant should not cause panic, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House medical adviser.

“We should not be freaking out. We should be doing the things we know work,’’ Fauci said on “CBS This Morning.” “It’s not the time to panic. We should be concerned, and our concern should spur us to do the things we know work. So rather than panicking, rather than freaking out, we should just do the right thing.”

The “right thing,” according to Fauci, includes getting vaccinated or getting a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The variant has been confirmed in the U.K., France, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong. As of Monday, no cases have been reported in the United States.