Home » What is Omicron? Understanding the latest COVID-19 variant

What is Omicron? Understanding the latest COVID-19 variant

by Baptist Health

The virus that causes COVID-19 has mutated (meaning it has changed) several times since it was first discovered. The development of new “variants” is normal behavior for viruses. In some instances, a variant is sufficiently different to cause concern.

What’s being called the Omicron variant falls into this category. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled Omicron (technically SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.529) a variant of concern or VOC.

Regarding the name, Omicron is a letter in the Greek alphabet, like Delta. How do you pronounce Omicron? There are two common pronunciations: AH-muh-krahn and OH-muh-krahn.

Is Omicron more deadly?

The Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO by health officials in South Africa on November 24, 2021. This doesn’t mean that the virus originated there, just that health experts in that country first detected it.

This variant is concerning to health officials for a few reasons, including that it has more than double the mutations of the highly contagious Delta variant. Most of those mutations are in what is called “spike proteins,” which help a virus attach to and infect cells.

According to a WHO statement, “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.” The organization also explains that an approach for testing for Omicron has been developed and that, “Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”

In addition to how quickly it spreads, Omicron variant symptoms and whether or not it causes serious illness are other characteristics that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring. At this early stage in our understanding of the variant, it’s unclear whether it has unique symptoms or can cause an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.

Health experts around the world are also assessing whether currently available COVID-19 vaccines will be effective in protecting against Omicron, and preventing serious cases of COVID-19 in particular.

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