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What We Know About Omicron

Our clinical and epidemiology teams comb through clinical research to answer your top questions on vaccine efficacy, protection from prior infection, how to best protect yourself and loved ones and, yes, how on earth to pronounce "Omicron."

This was written in December 2021. Top-of-mind topics and the amount we're learning is continuously changing, as you know. We like to leave these articles active for reference, but please review newer Kinsa articles for the most up-to-date information!

As always, because we know news sources can be polarizing these days, everything you read on this page is from scientific research articles, academic institutions and Kinsa’s team of epidemiologists, clinicians and data scientists.

A brief summary of “the Omicron situation:"

Omicron is a newly-discovered variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This viral shape-shifter looks different than other, now-familiar variants if we zoom in on its spike protein - the region on its surface that allows it to get into our cells. Omicron’s spike protein mutations worry scientists because they have the potential to make this variant more infectious, or to evade antibodies from vaccines or a previous COVID infection (i.e. cause more “breakthrough infections.”) This is why the World Health Organization has noted Omicron as “a variant of concern.”

Is this the first-ever “variant of concern?”

First, a quick recap on what qualifies a viral variant as a “variant of concern”:

  • It’s more contagious than the original variant
  • Or it causes more severe symptoms than the original variant
  • Or it renders existing public health measures - think existing vaccines & treatments - less effective

Based on existing data, Omicron checks the boxes 1 & 3 - it looks like it’s more contagious and it may render existing vaccines less effective at preventing someone from catching the virus (but not from becoming severely ill or dying from it - more on this below).

Omicron is not the first-ever variant of concern for the novel coronavirus. Four others have preceded Omicron: alpha, beta, gamma and delta. We find it reassuring that scientists have responded to this variant more quickly than with any of the prior four.

Do vaccines, boosters and previous COVID infection protect me against Omicron?

Against infection, less so than they did against other variants. Against severity, being fully vaccinated and boosted provides a good deal of protection.

Here’s why: when you’re fully-vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recovered from a COVID infection, your body retains antibodies that recognize the unique proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. Think of the virus as a classic old western villain and your antibodies as “wanted” posters. If that old western villain enters town (your body), the strapping local sheriff (your immune system) immediately recognizes it from the posters, places it in the county jail (destroys the virus) and prevents it from becoming a problem in your peaceful, thriving town (i.e. making you sick). 

Think of Omicron as the villain who’s done their research, seen the “wanted” posters and shown up in town completely disguised. It’s now much easier for them to dupe the local sheriff (get past your immune cells) and cause trouble (i.e. make you sick). In the case of this viral villain, its “disguise” is mutations in the spike proteins on its surface.

So, why does getting a booster shot change the game with diminished protection?

Think of the booster as a refreshing cold-water-splash on your immune system's face. It flushes your immune system with fresh antibodies (i.e. protection from infection) and reawakens other immune cells, like T-cells, that aren't as easily duped my Omicron's spike mutations (i.e. protection against severe symptoms). If you're thinking, wait, you just said that the antibodies I get from vaccination aren't good at recognizing Omicron, here's how our epidemiologists square this in their heads:

While they may not be as good at recognizing Omicron as they were other variants, they're not completely ineffective at recognizing it either. The antibody boost is a classic case of quantity trumping quality.

And, rest assured, even if you do get a breakthrough infection from Omicron, the T-cell response conferred by the booster shot provides excellent protection against severe illness - they'll get rid of any cells infected with the virus before it can replicate itself in large enough quantities that it makes you very sick.

Should I adjust behaviors at all, given there’s so little known about this variant?

If you're fully-vaccinated, get your booster! If you're not yet fully-vaccinated, get your vaccine and, 2 months later, get your bivalent booster shot (yep, even you folks who've had COVID).

If you consider yourself high-risk or are around people who are, avoid crowded, indoor gatherings around people outside your household, when possible (shop at the grocery store during off-hours, sit in an uncrowded pew at church etc.). If this isn’t possible, wear a mask when indoors and consider double-masking (surgical mask under cloth mask) or wearing a KN95 mask.

Gathering with the people you love is good for your mental health, so we won’t deter you from that. If anyone in your circle is at-risk (new babies, older folks, immunocompromised), consider taking a COVID test and waiting for it to come back (hopefully) negative before hugging them, or wear a mask indoors. If it’s too chilly to take the celebration outside, you can also run an air purifier if you have access to one, or bundle up and open the windows.

Basically: your vaccine / prior infection are an imperfect shield, until further notice. If you’re fully vaccinated, try to readopt some of the prior cautious behaviors you took before you were fully vaccinated. Remember: social distancing and masking go a long way.

Are there any differences in symptoms when infected with the Omicron variant vs. other variants of the virus?

Unfortunately, if you’re symptomatic, there’s no single telltale symptom that signals you’re infected with Omicron vs. another variant. When you go get a COVID test, many labs can examine and identify the genetic structure of the virus you’ve caught.

How on earth do I say “Omicron” if I’m talking about it with family & friends?

If you want to pronounce it like a World Health Organization official, OH-muh-cron.

But, honestly, the way you’ve been saying it is probably also right. 😉 There’s no single, accepted way to say it in the states.

What are Kinsa’s data scientists doing to keep an eye on the developing Omicron situation?

Using our local, anonymized fever & symptom data, we’re keeping an eye on 3 key things: 

  • How quickly illness is spreading in communities (“transmissibility”)
  • How likely it is that fully-vaccinated people or people with a previous COVID infection get reinfected (“immune escape”)
  • If symptoms, hospitalizations and deaths are higher with Omicron than with other variants (“severity.”)

We’re constantly chattering away behind the scenes, deciding what firm conclusions we can draw from emerging research and our data. We promise to keep you updated (on confirmed news; nothing speculative!) as the situation develops.


Sources:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03608-x

https://www.who.int/news/item/28-11-2021-update-on-omicron

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/researchers-map-structure-of-coronavirus-spike-protein/

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03614-z

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/a-new-strain-of-coronavirus-what-you-should-know

https://khn.org/news/article/omicron-coronavirus-variants-what-you-need-to-know/

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03592-2

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-021-00625-9

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2114290