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Omicron update today: Variant now in 30 states, symptoms, vaccine and booster protection

The omicron variant is raising global concern.


Sarah Tew/CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

As the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus spreads across the US, scientists are piecing together a picture of how easily the virus can pass from one person to another and evade protection provided by the primary vaccine doses of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Preliminary data suggests two doses may not be enough to guard against the variant. “[Omicron] appears to be able to evade some of the immune protection of … the antibodies that are induced by vaccines,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said on Sunday. “The somewhat encouraging news is that preliminary data show that when you get a booster … it raises the level of protection high enough that it then does do well against the omicron.”

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last Friday nearly 80% of the confirmed omicron cases in the US are fully vaccinated, with about a third also having received a booster. Over a third had been previously infected with the virus.

In the US, President Joe Biden is doubling down on urging vaccines and booster shots until more information on the new variant becomes available. As a result, the US administered 12.5 million shots in the last week, according to Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. That’s the highest number of weekly shots since May. Seven million of those were booster shots, Zients said.

So far, the COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death, with people who are unvaccinated being more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized if infected. Vaccine makers are optimistic the current vaccines authorized for use in the US will provide a degree of protection against omicron, too.

Here are eight important things to know about omicron today. For more on COVID-19 boosters, here’s a trick to easily get an appointment and a free ride. Here’s how you’ll soon get a COVID-19 test kit for free and details on mixing and matching vaccines.


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A COVID vaccine booster may be needed to guard against omicron

Saying that three shots is “optimal care,” Fauci on Sunday said, “If you want to be optimally protected, absolutely get a booster.” His guidance comes a few days after BioNTech scientists said two doses of the vaccine it developed with Pfizer may not be enough to defend against the omicron variant and three doses — the first two shots and a booster — may be needed to restore protection.

“Individuals who have received two vaccines will most likely not have significant prevention from infection or any type of disease [from the new variant],” BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin said during the Wednesday briefing. Şahin said more information is needed to confirm the company’s initial laboratory findings that indicate a third Pfizer vaccine dose is important to guard against the variant.

So far, the omicron virus is creating mild symptoms

According to Fauci, preliminary information seems to indicate omicron may produce less serious symptoms than initially feared: “We’re getting anecdotal information … that the level of severity appears to be maybe a bit less than in the delta,” he said Sunday.

Drug-makers could create an omicron-specific vaccine if needed

It could take weeks to know for certain how effective the current vaccines are against the omicron variant. But Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson say they are already gearing up to create a vaccine designed to combat omicron if needed.

Moderna said it could have vaccine candidates ready for trial in 60 to 90 days. Pfizer said it could have a new vaccine ready by March, pending regulator authorization. Johnson & Johnson said it’s working with scientists in South Africa and around the world to evaluate the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine against the omicron variant and has begun work on a new vaccine designed for omicron.

Early signs suggest the new COVID variant may spread more easily than delta

It could still be two or three weeks till we know more about how easily omicron can be passed between people and how resistant the mutated virus is against the current crop of vaccines, but Fauci on Tuesday at a White House briefing said that early data also suggests omicron could be more infectious than the delta variant and is replacing delta as the dominant COVID-19 strain in South Africa.

Omicron confirmed in 30 US states

It surfaced in California and Minnesota. Now the variant has been detected in 30 states across the country, from Washington to Mississippi and Texas to Utah. The US and other countries were already bracing for an increased caseload as colder weather and holiday gatherings brought more people indoors together. Now, projections of a winter surge of the dominant delta variant join concerns about omicron’s spread.

Add to that increasing flu infections, and experts worry about a “twindemic” of the two illnesses.

Omicron could become the dominant COVID variant in Europe in months

In Europe, omicron could become the most common COVID-19 variant in months, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

“Mathematical modeling indicates that the Omicron VOC is expected to cause over half of all SARS-CoV-2 infections in the EU/EEA within the next few months” due to early understandings of the omicron variant’s high transmissibility between people, the body said in a Dec. 2 briefing (PDF). 

Scientists studying the omicron variant in South Africa, where it was first reported to the World Health Organization, have said it’s spreading more than twice as fast as the delta variant. But what isn’t yet known is whether the spread is hastened because the mutations make it easier to spread among people, if vaccines are less effective against this strain or for some other reason. The study cited by The New York Times has not yet been published or peer-reviewed.

Omicron has similarities to the delta variant’s mutation

COVID latches onto cells using a spike protein in its structure. Omicron has more mutations than the delta variant, which is considered at least twice as contagious as previous strains. While it isn’t clear yet if omicron is more or less contagious than delta, the presence of those mutations is one cause of concern. 

That may be one reason countries around the world have banned travel from some countries in southern Africa and increased travel restrictions that include a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours before travel, regardless of vaccination status.

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Drugmakers are exploring if the current vaccines are effective against the new variant.


Sarah Tew/CNET

COVID PCR tests can identify the omicron variant

Most PCR tests to identify the presence of COVID-19 in the body are free (COVID-19 tests for international travel are the main exception). So it’s good news that the existing nasal swab test has been found to detect the omicron variant; a blood test or other procedure so far is unnecessary.

“Fortunately for us, the PCRs that we mostly use would pick up this very unusual variant that has a real large constellation of mutations,” Fauci said Nov. 29 in a press briefing.

Booster shots and vaccines are urged to help prevent omicron’s spread

On Dec. 2, Biden announced a plan to help protect the US against the omicron variant this winter. It includes:

  • Outreach programs to contact people eligible to receive booster shots.
  • Making at-home COVID-19 tests “free” for everyone.
  • Tighter travel restrictions that require a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours before departure.
  • Paid time off for federal workers to get booster shots.
  • Securing antiviral pills as a treatment for people who become infected with COVID-19 (these are recommended but not yet FDA-approved).
  • Sending 200 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccine to international countries in the next 100 days (280 million have already been sent).

For additional COVID-19 guidance, here’s what to know about new travel restrictions, how to store your vaccine card on your phone and what to do if you lose your vaccine card.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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