The Slatest

Omicron Seems to Spread Quickly. But It Hasn’t Caused Any Deaths.

Shoppers, some wearing face coverings, cross Oxford Street in central London on December 4, 2021.
Shoppers, some wearing face coverings, cross Oxford Street in central London on December 4, 2021. DANIEL LEAL/Getty Images

Omicron continues to spread across the United States, and around the world, as scientists try to pin down how fast it spreads and how much of a threat it poses compared to other strains of the virus . As of Saturday morning, omicron cases had been reported in 12 U.S. states, pretty much all of which were among people who had traveled to South Africa recently. None of the cases so far in the U.S. have resulted in serious illness; and the World Health Organization has said that no omicron cases, which have been detected in at least 38 countries, have resulted in death.

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WHO officials note that it will take weeks to know how infectious omicron really is and how effective the current crop of vaccines is against the new variant. Experts emphasize that vaccines will provide some protection against the variant, especially against the worse outcomes of infection, like hospitalization and death. “There’s no reason to suppose that they won’t,” Michael Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO said. That said, preliminary data appears to suggest omicron is able to cause reinfection at a higher rate compared to previous variants, which is of particular concern to countries where vaccination rates are low.

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That natural immunity to the virus might not hold up as well against omicron hints that the vaccines might not provide as much protection against the new variant as they have against previous strains. “It’s scary that there are so many reinfections happening, which means that vaccine-induced immunity may also be impacted in similar way,” Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale, tells the New York Times. The location of the new variant’s many mutations also suggests it is able to evade at some of the immunity built up by vaccines. But it’s not all worrying news: early data suggests “omicron won’t be impervious to the body’s second line of defense, T-cells,” notes Bloomberg.

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Scientists in South Africa report that Omicron appears to be spreading twice as fast as Delta there. Part of the reason why omicron may be more transmissible is because it appears to have picked up genetic material from a virus that causes the common cold in humans. That is the conclusion of another pre-print study in which researchers “found a snippet of genetic code that is also present in a virus that can bring about a cold,” reports the Washington Post. That could mean the variant spreads more easily but only causes mild or asymptomatic illness.

For now, researchers emphasize that the best line of defense continues to be to vaccinate as many people as possible. The emergence of the new variant amounts to the “ultimate evidence” of the dangerous effects of unequal access to vaccines around the world, Francesco Rocca, the head of the Red Cross, said.

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