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December 17, 2021 – What do we know about Omicron variant so far? WHO’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove updates on the transmissibility, severity, symptoms and ways to protect yourself in Science in 5.
We’re doing an update on Omicron in Science in 5 today. Hello, I’m Vismita Gupta-Smith and we are talking to Dr Maria Van Kerkhove. Is Omicron more severe? Is it more transmissible? And how can you protect yourself? Welcome, Maria. Maria, what do we know so far about the transmissibility of Omicron?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
So, thanks Vismita for having me. We’re learning a lot about the Omicron variant every day. In terms of transmissibility, we are seeing a really increased growth rate of Omicron over other variants of concern. These are some of the sharpest increases that we’ve seen to date. We do know that it has what we call a growth advantage over Delta. And what this means is that we’re seeing a large increase in cases where Omicron is detected. At the time of filming this Omicron has been detected in more than 77 countries, but it’s likely that it’s present in other countries as well. The big question right now is how will Omicron compete with other variants that are circulating in populations? For example, will Omicron outcompete Delta or not? It’s still a little bit early for us to have a full understanding, but what we can say is that some of the mutations that are identified in Omicron will provide a growth advantage, will allow it to be more transmissible. So, this is a concern that we have and as we know, more cases, if there’s more increased transmissibility, which is what we are seeing, we’ll have more cases. More cases mean more hospitalizations and more hospitalizations can put health care systems that are already overburdened into a state where people will not get the appropriate care that they need.
Maria, does Omicron cause more severe disease? And what are the symptoms we are seeing so far?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
We’re still learning about severity as well. We do know that people with Omicron can have the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic infection, mild infection, people needing hospitalization, and people have died from Omicron. We do have initial reports that suggest that Omicron is less severe compared to Delta. However, if again, if we have more cases, more cases mean more hospitalizations, and if a health care system is overburdened, people will die because they won’t get the appropriate care that they need. So, it’s early to tell whether or not Omicron is more or less severe, but we do have some initial reports that it is less severe. Now, don’t be fooled. Even if we have a virus that causes less severe disease, this virus can affect vulnerable populations. And we know people with underlying conditions, people of advanced age, if they are infected with any variant of SARS-CoV-2, including Omicron, they are at an increased risk of developing severe disease. So, it is really critical that even if we do see more mild disease, we still do everything that we can to reduce transmission in all populations, people who are vaccinated, as well as people who are not vaccinated. In terms of disease presentation, there are many studies that are underway that are looking at this and people who are infected with Omicron compared to other variants. We have not seen a change in the disease profile. For example, we haven’t seen a change in the symptoms that people present with Omicron compared to Delta. So you won’t be able to tell the difference. So, the best thing for you to do is to keep yourself safe, get vaccinated when you can and make sure that you take steps to reduce your exposure to this virus.
Maria, what can people do to protect themselves against Omicron? And what about the current batch of vaccines?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
So there’s many things that people can do to keep themselves safe. First of all, is get vaccinated. Now there are many studies that are underway that are looking at vaccine effectiveness against Omicron. And these studies are currently underway. We don’t have that complete picture yet, but what we do know is that it is better to be vaccinated than not. And what is really critical in all countries is that those people who are at risk, those who are over the age of 60, those who have underlying conditions receive their vaccines and making sure they get their first and second doses. It’s really, really critical that everybody get vaccinated when it’s their turn. And at the same time, while we increase vaccination coverage among those who are most at risk in all countries, we also have to take steps to drive transmission down everywhere. And this is using simple measures: physical distancing, wearing of a well-fitted mask with clean hands, avoiding crowds, improving ventilation where we live, where we work, where we study. The biggest factor right now is making sure you reduce your exposure to the virus, no matter what variant is circulating. Everything we do right now, Delta variant is dominant worldwide,
that also needs to be brought under control, and everything that we do right now for Delta will benefit Omicron no matter how it unfolds, no matter what we learn about it. So, do your best to keep yourself safe.
Get vaccinated when you can and make sure that you reduce your exposure to this virus where you live.
Thank you, Maria. That was an update on the Omicron variant. Remember that as more information comes in, we will make it available to you on our channels. Until next time, then stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.