Here's Everything We Know About the Omicron Variant and Vaccines

Will our current shots protect against the concerning new COVID variant?

We were still digesting our Thanksgiving dinner when reports of a worrying new COVID variant began to trickle in. There is so much we don't know about B.1.1.529, which as of Nov. 26 has been dubbed Omicron and designated a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO), but we know enough that virus experts and health officials are sounding an urgent alarm. First reported in South Africa on Nov. 24, Omicron is spreading quickly and seems to have the potential to overtake Delta. While it has currently only been confirmed in a handful of countries, it has a staggering number of mutations that experts believe could make it the most dangerous COVID variant yet, including the potential ability to evade immune responses. The most pressing question, then, is if our existing COVID vaccines will protect against the Omicron variant.

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With the little data we have, there is certainly cause for concern. The New York Times reports that at the moment, "scientists are still unclear on how effective vaccines will be against the new variant flagged by a team in South Africa, which displays mutations that might resist neutralization." Omicron has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to human cells, per the Financial Times. That could make it more transmissible and more likely to cause breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated individuals.

Unfortunately, because this is such a new variant with so few cases to study, the question of how effectively Omicron could bypass the protection from vaccines is still impossible to answer with any certainty. However, The Guardian notes that experts are particularly concerned about specific mutations that "have been associated with changes to the spike protein that might make it unrecognisably different to the version of COVID our vaccines were designed to target."

At the moment, health officials are warning people to be on high alert, but not to panic. That can be a challenge when there's still so much unknown—and when the information we do have is not particularly promising. Omicron's mutations could very well make it more difficult for the antibodies produced by vaccination (and prior infection) to target, as Jesse Bloom, PhD, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told The Washington Post.

"What that's going to mean for how likely people are to get infected, even they've been vaccinated, it's too early to say," Bloom said. "But having a drop in the antibody neutralization is never a good thing."

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But it's important to note that a reduction in the protective power of the COVID vaccines does not mean the vaccines would stop working completely. In a Nov. 26 Twitter thread about Omicron, Ashish K. Jha, MD, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, acknowledged that the new variant is concerning, reiterating that, "There are a series of mutations in key regions that may impact effectiveness of our vaccines."

Still, Jha was quick to add that the vaccines will almost certainly work against Omicron. "[Will the variant] render vaccines useless? No. Super unlikely," he wrote on Twitter.

Other virus experts are inclined to agree. "My expectation would be that the mutations in this variant are not going to ablate or completely escape that type of antibody neutralization" from the vaccines, Bloom told The Washington Post.

Per the newspaper, Ian Sanne, an infectious disease specialist and member of South Africa's Ministerial Advisory Council on COVID, said at a Nov. 26 news conference that early data shows a higher number of breakthrough infections with Omicron in South Africa, but that the vaccines do seem to be preventing the most severe outcomes, with the majority of hospitalizations occurring among the unvaccinated.

"We have every indication that the vaccines are still effective in preventing severe disease and/or complications," Sanne said, while acknowledging that there is currently very little data to analyze.

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Researchers across the globe are now fast-tracking studies to learn all that they can about the Omicron variant, including how effective the existing COVID vaccines will be against it. According to Reuters, Pfizer and BioNTech are testing their vaccine against Omicron, and should have results within two weeks. In a statement, the companies said, "These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally."

If the vaccine does prove to be no match for the variant, Pfizer and BioNTech have said they could have a new Omicron-targeted vaccine available to ship within 100 days. Per Reuters, Moderna has also announced that it's testing a booster tailored toward Omicron. In the meantime, however, health officials and experts stress that the best way to protect yourself against any COVID variant is to be fully vaccinated and get a booster shot with one of the existing vaccines.

In a Nov. 26 statement, President Joe Biden stressed the importance of taking these essential protective measures. "For those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID illness—fortunately, for the vast majority of our adults—the best way to strengthen your protection is to get a booster shot, as soon as you are eligible," Biden said. "For those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today."

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