A new report on the COVID-19 variant omicron was published Sunday by the World Health Organization, just two days after labeling it a variant of concern.
The WHO said it’s currently coordinating with researchers around the globe to learn more about the variant with current and upcoming studies that explore omicron’s transmissibility, preventability, severity and treatment options.
How dangerous is omicron?
It can’t be said yet whether omicron is more transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus or any of its variants, including delta, according to the organization. Case numbers are currently rising in South Africa where omicron was first detected, but epidemiologists are still working to learn if the spread there is due to the variant or the location. Hospitalization rates are also on the rise in South Africa, but preliminary studies haven’t yet determined if it’s specifically because of omicron’s effects on the body. The WHO clarified all other variants of COVID-19, including delta, can cause severe disease or death.
It will take days or weeks for researchers to determine if omicron infections are more severe than those of other variants, the WHO said. Officials also said there is currently no information to suggest that omicron symptoms are any different than those from other variants.
How effective are our defenses against omicron?
Like other aspects of the variant, the WHO said it could take weeks to better determine the likeliness of reinfection from omicron. Preliminary studies suggest there may be an increased risk of reinfection for both vaccinated and previously infected people compared to other variants, and the WHO said it’s working with technical partners to learn if conventional COVID-19 vaccine options put up as good of defense against omicron as they do against the dominant virus and other strains.
The WHO said common PCR tests will detect an omicron infection, but studies are ongoing to learn if other test types can reliably detect it, such as rapid antigen tests. As far as treatment options, corticosteroids and IL6 receptor blockers — such as tocilizumab and sarilumab — will still be effective for patients with severe COVID-19, according to the WHO.
In time, the organization said other treatments will be assessed.
What should countries do about omicron?
Due to omicron’s designation as a variant of concern, the WHO suggested countries continue to implement public health safety measures while researchers work to learn if the variant is deadlier, more resistant to vaccines or more transmissible than the dominant virus. The WHO urged that access to COVID-19 vaccines should continue to be spread, and if it still isn’t feasible to vaccinate everyone against COVID-19 in any given community, the organization prioritizes its message for vulnerable groups, such as health care workers and the elderly.
Instead of imposing travel bans, the WHO called on countries to follow science and international health regulations.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” WHO’s regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said in a statement.
Additionally, the organization said countries should be keeping a close eye on COVID-19 case numbers, cataloging and sequencing tests in order to send reports to the organization to better the collective understanding of omicron’s characteristics.
What should people do about omicron?
According to the organization, health measures that should be implemented are those already proven to reduce COVID-19 transmission overall. So, similar to the organization’s advice for countries, the WHO said people should keep distancing themselves from others, wear a mask, avoid poorly ventilated or crowded areas, wash their hands regularly, keep coughs and sneezes to themselves and get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they have not already.