In late November, the omicron variant was first identified in South Africa. Since then, the variant, which has more than 30 mutations to the virus' spike protein, has been spreading rapidly. In the U.S., it has quickly overtaken delta as the dominant variant, accounting for more than 73% of new cases as of last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week.
Here is everything you need to know about omicron right now.
Does the omicron variant of COVID-19 spread easily?
Last week on TODAY, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky commented on what we currently know about omicron's transmissibility.
"The science is still evolving, it’s still early, but what we’re seeing in some of these other countries is doubling times of about every two days or so, so really rapid increase in the amount of omicron that’s out there," she said.
On TODAY, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned of omicron's swift spread.
"You’re dealing with a virus that has an unprecedented capability of spreading extremely rapidly. We’ve really not seen anything like this before. It has a doubling time of about two days," he said.
What are symptoms of the omicron variant?
NBC News reported that the omicron variant leads to mild illness for those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Experts outlined the prominent symptoms they are seeing reported, which are very similar to the common cold:
- Fatigue or tiredness.
- Congestion and runny nose.
It is unclear what symptoms omicron will cause in the unvaccinated population.
Is illness caused by omicron less severe?
"We’re starting to see some early data that is demonstrating some decreased severity," Walensky said on TODAY. "Shorter lengths of stay, fewer people on oxygen, fewer people in the ICU, but I also want to emphasize that if you have more and more people who have disease, even if you have fewer people that get sick from it, you still have a lot of people who are getting sick, so really we want to make sure that we keep all those prevention measures — vaccination, boosting."
What should you do if you test positive for COVID-19?
If you are sick with COVID-19 contact your health care provider and isolate yourself from members of your household. Monitor your symptoms and stay in touch with your doctor if they worsen. Tell close contacts that you are sick with COVID-19 and encourage them to get tested.
People sick with COVID-19 need to isolate for 10 days; day 0 is the first day of symptoms. If you test positive and never develop symptoms, day 0 counts as the day of your positive viral test.
Will our current vaccines work against omicron?
The CDC states that current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths due omicron variant. Though, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur.
In early December, Pfizer-BioNTech said lab studies of the booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine appeared to provide protection against the omicron variant. Though those who only received two doses of the vaccine may not be as well protected.
This week Moderna said its COVID-19 booster also provides protection against the omicron variant, though the company is still pursuing an omicron-specific booster.
A recent study that hasn't been peer-reviewed found that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is not as effective against omicron. Experts stress the best thing you can do to stay safe from the omicron variant is to get vaccinated and boosted. People who received the J&J vaccine can get another dose of the same vaccine or one of the mRNA vaccines, according to NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar.
What should we do to lower our risks of contracting the omicron variant?
In addition to masking in congregate indoor settings and hand-washing, Fauci recommended getting tested for COVID-19 before any kind of gathering. And if you're not yet vaccinated or boosted, now is a good time to do that.
"If you don’t have the availability of the test and you are fully vaccinated and boosted, you should feel comfortable having a holiday meal or gathering with family members who are also vaccinated and boosted," he said.
Other experts echoed Fauci's recommendations.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if you are fully vaccinated, and especially if you’re boosted, you’re going to have more protection against this variant,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health said in late November. “So if you are not yet boosted, and certainly if you’re not vaccinated, you need to go get the shot. There’s never been a more urgent time."
This story was updated on Dec. 22, 2021 to include new information about the omicron variant.