COVID-19 Roundup: What’s Known About Omicron Variant; CDC Strengthens Booster Recommendation; and More

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December 3, 2021

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What is Known About the Latest COVID-19 Variant of Concern: Omicron

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on the Friday after Thanksgiving that it had designated an emerging new strain of COVID-19 as a “variant of concern” and named it omicron.

Scientist and public health officials in the U.S. and worldwide say much is yet to be known about the variant. But omicron is apparently causing infections to surge in South Africa, where it was first detected, making it potentially as transmissible as the delta variant.

“CDC has been actively monitoring and preparing for this variant, and we will continue to work diligently with other U.S. and global public health and industry partners to learn more,” stated the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week. “Despite the detection of Omicron, Delta remains the predominant strain in the United States.”

The CDC adds that “the relatively small number of cases documented to date makes it difficult to estimate” whether omicron carries higher transmissibility than the delta variant.

Where has omicron been detected?

The variant apparently was first identified by scientists in South Africa, but where omicron originated is still not known. South African officials believe omicron is behind the recent surge in COVID-19 infections in that country’s most populated province.

The first known case of omicron in the U.S. was confirmed this week in California in an individual who traveled from South Africa to the U.S. on Nov. 22 and tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 29, U.S. officials said. “The individual (in California) had mild symptoms that are improving, is self-quarantining and has been since testing positive,” states the CDC. “All close contacts have been contacted and have tested negative.”

Other cases were confirmed Thursday and Friday in Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, and Pennsylvania. Minnesota health officials confirmed a case of the omicron variant in a resident who recently returned from a convention in New York City, Nov. 19-21. The man, who is fully vaccinated, has since recovered. A woman in Colorado has also contracted the variant strain, Colorado health officials confirmed. The woman had recently traveled to South Africa and was fully vaccinated. She is experiencing mild symptoms.

U.S. public health officials say cases of omicron are likely spreading across other states.

Cases of the omicron strain have been reported throughout Africa, Europe and in Brazil. Canada’s health minister says that country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two people who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.

What is most concerning about omicron?

The probability that omicron is highly transmissible — and more so than the delta variant — is very concerning to public health officials in the U.S. and other nations. Also of concern is omicron’s high number of mutations– as many as 30 mutations of the coronavirus’ spike protein that can invade human cells. Most of the mutations don’t seem to appear in other recognized variants. In comparison, the delta variant has about seven mutations. These omicron mutations could help the coronavirus evade immunity from vaccines — but that has yet to be confirmed.

What are vaccine makers doing in response to omicron?

COVID-19 vaccine makers with authorized shots in the U.S. – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – have all pledged to reconfigure their formulas to protect against omicron — if necessary. This may include a separate omicron-targeting booster. They also say that there will be more data available by early next year on the current vaccines’ ability to fight the omicron strain. U.S. health officials say the current vaccines are the best protection available against any COVID-19 variant at this time.

What are omicron’s symptoms?

At this time, the WHO states there’s no evidence to suggest that symptoms linked to omicron are different or more severe than those caused by other variants. Doctors in South Africa who first treated patients infected with the omicron variant have stated that symptoms are mild. But these infections were initially reported among university students — generally younger and healthier adults. It is still uncertain if omicron is capable of causing severe disease or death, particularly among vulnerable individuals who are older or who have underlying health issues. “

“Currently, it is unclear if infection with the Omicron variant is associated with more severe disease,” the CDC states. “Due to the small number of cases attributed to the Omicron variant, assessment of disease severity is difficult.”

CDC: Get Vaccinated — And Get Boosters If Already Vaccinated — to Help Fight New Variant

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “strengthening” its recommendation that all adults get a COVID-19 booster shot following the emergence of the omicron variant, which may be highly transmissible.

“The recent emergence of the Omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,” stated CDC Director, Rochelle Walensky, M.D., in a statement. “Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant.”

Individuals, ages 18 and older, should get a booster shot either when they are six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series, or two months after their initial Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Boosters and the initial series of the three approved COVID-19 vaccines are widely available at local retail pharmacies.

“I strongly encourage the 47 million adults who are not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to vaccinate the children and teens in their families as well because strong immunity will likely prevent serious illness,” added Dr. Walensky.

She also encouraged people to get a COVID-19 test if they are sick. “Increased testing will help us identify Omicron quickly,” she said.

Pfizer-BioNTech Seek Booster Approval for 16- and 17-Year-Olds

Pfizer-BioNTech is seeking U.S. regulatory approval for its COVID-19 booster doses for use in 16- and 17-year-olds.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive officer, confirmed in media reports that it has submitted a request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking expansion of its booster authorization. Last month, U.S. regulators approved a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to all adults 18 years of age and older. The boosters should be administered at least six months after the second shot.

U.S. regulators are expected to approve the expansion of boosters for teenagers in the wake of the new variant of concern: omicron.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week strengthened its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots, urging all adults that they “should” get an additional dose amid growing concern about omicron.

A week before Thanksgiving, the CDC followed the FDA in approving Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine boosters for all U.S. adults — regardless of health status. Previously, adults under 65 with underlying health issues or work-related exposure to COVID were eligible for boosters.

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