5 things first responders should know about the Omicron variant

Just two days after its discovery on Nov. 24, the WHO classified the Omicron variant as one of concern

On Nov. 24, the World Health Organization was made aware of a new COVID-19 variant that was discovered and reported by scientists in South Africa, though new evidence suggests the strain was already present in Europe prior to being identified. 

Just two days after it was reported, the WHO named the variant Omicron and classified it as a variant of concern, warning it could have severe consequences for the world.

Here’s what we know about the Omicron variant so far.

On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization classified the Omicron variant as one of concern and warned it could have severe consequences for the world.
On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization classified the Omicron variant as one of concern and warned it could have severe consequences for the world. (Photo/Getty Images)

1. The Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations to the virus’ spike protein

Scientists studying the variant have discovered more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, causing alarm among health experts, NPR reported. For comparison, the Delta variant, which dominated the original COVID-19 virus to become the main strain worldwide, had less than 15 mutations, but still spread quickly.

2. Scientists are working to understand the implications of the Omicron variant

As the variant was just discovered, there are a lot of questions as to its transmissibility and lethality. COVID-19 cases have increased in South Africa, where the new variant was first reported, and scientists say the Omicron variant is the dominant strain found in those new infections.

Similarly, hospitalizations are up in the country, as well, but it’s unclear if the increase is a direct result of the new Omicron variant.

3. It’s unclear if current vaccines will be as effective against the Omicron variant

When the Delta variant first appeared in May 2021, health experts were concerned it would be able to evade the efficacy of available vaccines; luckily, with the addition of COVID-19 booster shots, protection levels remained high against Delta.

However, with the number of spike protein mutations in the Omicron variant, scientists are concerned it might be able to evade the immunity afforded by current vaccines and infect people more easily than past variants, Reuters reported

In a statement released by the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, believes that currently available vaccines “are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID,” regarding the Omicron variant.

Additionally, in response to the variant, vaccine makers have already announced plans to test current vaccines and boosters against the new strain.

4. The first U.S. case of Omicron was reported in December 2021

On Dec. 1, the first U.S. case of Omicron was detected in California. The CDC released a statement:

"The California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health have confirmed that a recent case of COVID-19 among an individual in California was caused by the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529). The individual was a traveler who returned from South Africa on November 22, 2021. The individual, who was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that are improving, is self-quarantining and has been since testing positive. All close contacts have been contacted and have tested negative."

The Omicron variant has been detected in several countries since it was first discovered, including:

  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Botswana
  • Brazil
  • Britain
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hong Kong
  • Israel
  • Italy 
  • Japan
  • The Netherlands

5. To stop Omicron from spreading, countries are once again implementing travel restrictions

Many countries have closed their borders to travelers coming from countries where individuals were determined to have contracted the Omicron variant, and many quarantine restrictions are back for citizens returning to their home countries.

The U.S. recently announced restrictions for non-citizens entering the U.S. from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

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