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Omicron: what we know about the new variant

December 21, 2021 • read

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Omicron: what we know about the new variant

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many twists and turns for not only Canadians, but everyone around the world. What started as one strain of SARS-CoV-2 has mutated into several COVID-19 variants over the past two years or so.

The latest COVID-19 variant, dubbed Omicron, is a strain experts are worried about when it comes to both the unvaccinated and vaccinated. Here’s what you need to know about the differences between Omicron and the other variants, how dangerous it is, your level of protection against it if you’re vaccinated, and much more.

What is the Omicron variant?

The new variant B.1.1.529, named Omicron, was first detected in November 2021 in Botswana and South Africa. With a large number of mutations on the spike protein (the mechanism used to bind human cells), Omicron is a variant of concern that has been linked to an increase in infections in multiple countries, including Canada, and has replaced the Delta variant as the predominant variant of concern in South Africa.

And those extra mutations on the spike protein are bad news because the more mutations there are, the harder it is for your immune system to fight off a virus. While there’s still much more research that needs to be done and as the data changes each day, it’s important to stay vigilant, get vaccinated, and follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

Is Omicron a dangerous variant of COVID-19?

Though we’re still in relatively early stages since the discovery of Omicron, it appears to be more contagious but less dangerous than any other variants of concern so far. According to one South African study by Discovery Health, the Omicron variant is more resistant to current vaccines but causes less severe symptoms.

So if Omicron symptoms are mostly mild, what’s the big deal then? The strain on the healthcare system is one of the big issues. Because Omicron is so contagious, those with underlying health conditions and/or are unvaccinated could be at risk of complications.

It’s also important to keep in mind that initially reported infections were among younger individuals who tend to have more mild symptoms/disease. As well, there’s often a delay from the onset of symptoms to respiratory complications, so understanding the level of severity of this new COVID-19 variant of concern will take more time.

This also means there isn’t a huge pool of positive cases to provide concrete research about how most people will react, so more data is still needed before overlooking Omicron. With all of this in mind, if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, there’s no time like the present.

Where has Omicron spread and how are scientists tracking it?

Much like the Delta, Lambda, and other COVID-19 variants of concern you’ve heard about throughout this pandemic, Omicron continues to spread around the world in large part due to travellers. South Africa currently has the most cases, with thousands being tracked each day. But according to the World Health Organization, Omicron has been detected in 38 countries, including Canada.

Researchers also continue to believe that Omicron is an extremely infectious COVID-19 variant with the highest risk of transmissibility out of any of the other variants of concern so far.

Will Omicron become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Canada?

With Omicron being the dominant COVID-19 variant in South Africa right now, it’s likely that this will be the case for Canada as well. Because Omicron is considered highly transmissible, current projections suggest that this variant will indeed become the dominant strain in Canada. In Ontario specifically, Omicron appears to be infecting 7.7 times more individuals than the Delta variant, which means it may already be the dominant strain circulating the province.

What are the symptoms of Omicron?

While Omicron is different from other strains of COVID-19, there’s no concrete evidence that symptoms associated with this variant are different from the original strain of COVID-19 or other variants.

Typical symptoms of COVID-19 include, but aren’t limited to, fever, chills, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, headache, and body aches. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you should book a PCR test immediately. You can book through your local public health unit or through Maple, and should also follow the advice of your local public health unit.

What makes Omicron different from other variants?

There’s one big difference between Omicron and the other variants that have surfaced, and that’s the number of mutations it carries. Omicron has displayed over 50 mutations and over 30 of those are in the spike protein itself. And while this might just sound like something out of a science fiction movie, the reality is the more mutations, the more infectious a virus will be.

In addition, clinical differences include impact on diagnostic and testing treatments and severity of disease, which we’ll discuss below.

Does the COVID-19 vaccine stop transmission of Omicron?

Recent studies on vaccine effectiveness in South Africa show that the Omicron variant presents some evasion of the immune response induced by Comirnaty (Pfizer-BioNTech), Spikevax (Moderna), Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca), and other vaccines.

Breakthrough infections in those fully vaccinated can still occur, however, these vaccines still protect against severe disease and death. This is an outcome that has only recently been presented but is still a possibility, which is another reason why researchers continue to say you should get vaccinated or book your booster shot.

How does Omicron affect travel?

Like previous COVID-19 variants of concern, travel in Canada has been affected by Omicron. Additional measures have been put in place for travellers, including no entry from foreign nationals to Canada via South Africa, Botswana, Egypt, and other countries with high cases of Omicron to date.

If you do happen to be travelling soon, it’s best to check the government website of your destination to find out what their COVID-19 protocols are. You’ll also likely experience delays because of increased public health measures. If you’re returning from the U.S. to Canada specifically, you should check if you’re eligible to enter the country as well as meet all entry requirements before crossing the border.

Can PCR tests detect if I have Omicron?

Yes, standard Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic are able to detect if you’ve been infected with Omicron since most PCR tests can detect part of the Omicron genome – the same goes for other variants of concern.

Rapid antigen tests are also a good way to screen for COVID symptoms for work or school if you’re displaying symptoms of COVID-19, and you can get results within 15 minutes.

Will the vaccine protect me against Omicron?

If you’re double vaccinated, the current vaccines have been shown to protect against Omicron, but it’s possible for breakthrough COVID-19 infections to occur. With highly contagious COVID-19 variants like Omicron or Delta, protective measures like being double or triple vaccinated help prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and even death.

COVID-19 booster shots provide an added layer of protection so if you can get one, it’s best to say yes and sign up for your third jab as soon as possible. And just like the beginning of the vaccine rollout, all vaccines currently being offered are good to prevent you from severe illness and death. COVID-19 boosters are touted as being so helpful especially in the fight against Omicron that certain provinces have lowered age limits so that residents can get their shots as soon as possible.

Will there be an updated vaccine to protect against Omicron?

As of late November 2021, Pfizer-BioNTech started working on an Omicron-specific version of its vaccine and it’s possible this vaccine could be ready within the next three months or so, pending regulatory approval. Moderna is also working on an updated version of its vaccine that could be ready to file with regulators by March 2022.

It should be noted that even though the current vaccines have been out for a while, they continue to provide protection against hospitalization and death, which includes infection from the Omicron variant so far. Pfizer, for example, says that the third dose of its vaccine, along with two previous doses, increases your level of antibodies by 25-fold.

It’s also important to remember that with this time of year, Omicron isn’t the only virus floating around. It’s expected that there will be more cases of the flu for Canadians this winter, which means it’s equally as important to get your flu shot as well as a COVID-19 booster shot.

How do I protect myself and my loved ones against Omicron?

It should be noted that Omicron has a higher household transmission risk compared to other strains of COVID-19 – 19% vs. 8.3%, to be exact, so if you do test positive, you should do your best to protect everyone in your home.

The best way to keep yourself and those around you safe from the Omicron variant is to make sure you’re double (or triple, if possible) vaccinated, continue keeping six feet of distance between others, wear a well-fitted mask, avoid poorly ventilated areas and improve ventilation when possible, and keep your hands clean to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

If you’re displaying symptoms or are concerned you’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, PCR tests remain the best method of testing. If you live in Ontario or Nova Scotia, you can easily book an independent PCR test today with Maple and get results back within 48 hours or less.

While research of the Omicron variant continues, one thing’s for sure – as long as COVID-19 is around, it doesn’t look like there will be a shortage of COVID-19 variants, so it’s best to take as many safety precautions as possible to help keep you and your loved ones safe.

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