Just as much of the world began tentatively adopting a kind of new, post-Covid normalcy, a new variant of the virus, dubbed Omicron, has sprung up globally to renew fears of case surges.
The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa and Botswana in mid-November and reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24, according to the CDC. The WHO classified Omicron as a “variant of concern,” and many countries including the United States followed suit. The first U.S. case was identified on Dec. 1 and further cases have been confirmed in at least 16 states as of Dec. 4.
This variant poses a particular concern to health officials largely because it involves so much uncertainty. Scientists are having trouble making determinations about Omicron’s transmissibility and symptoms compared to other variants, as current research findings remain preliminary and are limited to southern Africa as the sole case study.
However, in their preliminary findings, scientists in South Africa expect that this variant will spread much faster than the original predominant COVID-19 strain and have noted possible mutations in Omicron that make it less vulnerable to the body’s natural immune system response. It has already become the dominant variant in South Africa, while the Delta variant remains more prevalent worldwide.
As cases of Omicron surged and spread, many countries imposed or reimposed travel restrictions and made new directives concerning vaccinations and vaccine booster shots, with significant new policies in several European states.
Two days prior to the variant’s confirmed presence in the U.S., President Joe Biden urged controlled caution, calling Omicron “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
The Biden administration announced several new policies aimed toward curbing the spread of Omicron and other variants, including testing requirements for all inbound international travelers and strict travel restrictions on eight countries in southern Africa. Masking requirements in public transportation, set to expire in January, were also extended into March.
Notably, experts have emphasized that new variants arising now should not cause fear akin to the early months of the pandemic.
“The reason why we had to do broad shutdowns and broad stay-at-home orders in March 2020 was because we were flying blind,” said Charity Dean, CEO of the Public Health Company and former California health official.
To the point of new knowledge, technology and resources attained globally in the last year, public health officials and leaders of countries across the globe are reaffirming the importance of vaccinations and booster shots as the best way to minimize the spread and effect of Omicron
Updated CDC guidelines state that all vaccinated individuals should get a booster shot of some kind, whether of the matching vaccine type they originally received or a different one. Health officials state that getting a booster increases the immune response of individuals exposed to COVID-19, resulting in greater protection from the virus in any variant form
As part of his response to the rise in Omicron infections, President Biden announced a series of measures to make booster shots more accessible to Americans, including a system for pharmacies to contact patients when they are due for a new shot and a renewed national ad campaign to arouse more awareness and support for vaccinations and boosters.
“Starting today, we’re making it easier than ever to get a booster,” Biden said in a press conference about COVID-19 response
Experts hope rapid global response and continued research, alongside increased vaccination rates, will mitigate the effects of this new variant.