January 23, 2022

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New COVID variant: What is omicron, are vaccines effective, where has it spread?


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.

Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant that has been detected in at least 19 countries, has infectious disease experts racing to study the new virus mutation for answers to how contagious the variant is, the severity of its symptoms and how effective the current group of COVID-19 vaccines may be against it.

“It’s not something we’ve seen before,” Noubar Afeyan, cofounder of vaccine-maker Moderna, told Bloomberg Television on Monday. “We have to take it for the serious threat that it poses.”

(The new omicron variant is pronounced OH-me-cron or OH-my-cron, depending on whether you studied ancient Greek. You can hear Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, pronounce it here.)

So far, the COVID-19 vaccines have proved to be highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death, with people who are unvaccinated 10 times more likely to be hospitalized if infected. With federal vaccine mandates, the Biden administration aims to counter the surge and put pressure on anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated. Antiviral drugs currently in development could also help counter serious effects of COVID infections.

The omicron variant comes at a time when countries around the world are continuing to battle a surge in cases caused by the delta variant. The coronavirus that swept the globe nearly two years ago continues to mutate in communities. The delta variant is currently the dominant COVID strain globally.

Here’s what scientists and vaccine-makers are saying about the variant so far as they rush to study the mutated virus, and what we still don’t know. For more information, here’s what we know about omicron and the Moderna booster and Pfizer booster, and what you need to know about mixing and matching vaccines.

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What is omicron, the new COVID variant?

Discovered by scientists in South Africa last week, the omicron variant of coronavirus contains new mutations that experts fear will allow the changed virus to spread even more quickly than the highly infectious delta variant. Scientists are testing whether omicron could cause breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated and reinfections for those who have antibodies from a prior COVID-19 infection.

“The emergence of the highly mutated omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, in a briefing on Monday about the omicron variant.

Are the current vaccines effective against the omicron variant?

Scientists and vaccine-makers all say it could be two weeks before they have a better idea about how effective the Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are in protecting against the omicron mutation and how easily it can evade protection. Early data from South Africa shows the new variant is causing a higher rate of breakthrough infections among people who received a full course of various COVID-19 vaccine brands.


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

Sarah Tew/CNET

Are people getting sicker with the omicron variant?

Scientists may not have a solid answer for weeks, but early evidence suggests that the variant doesn’t cause more severe disease than previous variants, according to The New York Times. 

What are the vaccine-makers doing?

Moderna: Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton told the BBC his company has hundreds of people examining the effectiveness of its current vaccine and booster with the variant. Moderna is also testing a COVID-19 vaccine that could protect against several mutated strains of the coronavirus looking at an omicron-specific booster vaccine. Burton said if Moderna needs to make a new vaccine modified for the variant, it could be available early in 2022.

Pfizer: A Pfizer spokesperson said the company is “constantly conducting surveillance efforts focused on monitoring for emerging variants that potentially escape protection from our vaccine.”

The spokesperson said Pfizer could develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days.

Johnson & Johnson: In a statement, 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, if needed.

Is the new omicron variant in the US and other countries?

The variant has been detected in at least 19 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.

So far, it’s not been found in the US. “We have not detected it yet,” Fauci said during an NBC interview this weekend. “But when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility … it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”

vaccine syringes

So far, omicron has not been detected in the US.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What is the Biden administration doing about the new variant?

In a speech Monday morning, Biden said his administration is looking into the mutation. “The new variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said. “We have the best vaccines in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we are learning more every single day.”

The US government is already working with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop a plan to create vaccines and boosters tailored for new variants as they emerge.

For additional COVID 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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