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Why Is the Omicron COVID Variant So Scary?

Just as the wave of COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant finally seems to be subsiding in west Georgia and east Alabama, now we see reports of a new threat: the Omicron variant.

Since late 2019 when the first cases of COVID-19 emerged, we’ve had to adjust to a sharp scientific learning curve (remember when we worried we could get COVID from our dogs?). Many of us have become amateur virologists, learning terms like “spiky proteins” that we never thought we’d need to know.

After about two years of constant stress, it’s easy to feel numb to the concern: Many of us are vaccinated, infection rates are lower than they’ve been in months and we’re ready to immerse ourselves in the joys of the holiday season ahead.

However, just as the unknown drove our fears in early 2020, so we close 2021 on the cusp of a coronavirus variant awash in uncertainty.

How dangerous is the Omicron variant? How easily does it spread? Are our vaccines effective against it?

And that’s why the new variant is so terrifying: We just don’t know.

What do we know about the Omicron variant?

We know that the first reported cases of the Omicron variant (also called B.1.1.529) were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) out of southern Africa, where researchers are working to collect data on emerging COVID-19 cases.

Many countries, including the United States, are imposing travel bans to stem the spread of this new variant, but cases have emerged in many western countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy and Germany.

We also know that the Omicron variant has an extremely high number of mutations. Researchers have found more than 50 mutations, or changes, to the Omicron variant compared to other strains of the coronavirus — and at least 30 of those involve the spiky proteins that the virus uses to get into human cells and cause infection.

Virus mutations are common

One reason we don’t have a vaccine to protect against the common cold or the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is because these viruses change, or mutate, so quickly. By the time we develop, test, approve and manufacture a vaccine, it’d probably no longer be effective.

The relative stability of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 helped us quickly develop safe, effective vaccines. These vaccines were developed using techniques and research that had been around for about a decade, and we were fortunate that so much groundwork had been done when we needed the vaccine.

Most of the vaccines in use around the world attack the spiky proteins that allow the coronavirus to enter human cells (“corona” means crown, crowns are spiky, hence the name). No spiky proteins, no ability to get into human cells, no infection.

With the Omicron variant, however, we worry that the coronavirus’ mutations could evade both our natural antibody response (among those previously infected), the monoclonal antibodies used to treat previously infected people and, terrifyingly, perhaps the vaccines currently available as well. This would allow the virus to spread faster — and maybe cause a more severe illness — than other strains, such as the Delta variant that wreaked havoc over the summer and early fall.

A good defense is the best offense against COVID

That we know so little about the Omicron variant is concerning, but we can find comfort in how much we’ve learned so quickly about the coronavirus itself.

We’ve learned how it spreads, that wearing masks can reduce exposing others to the virus, that widespread vaccination reduces deaths, instances of severe illness and hospitalizations. (And that we don’t get it from dogs.)

While we’re all ready to put the pandemic behind us, it’s still worthwhile to be vigilant and continue to take reasonable precautions. These efforts helped us stem the spread of previous waves — including, most recently, the Delta variant — and can help us mitigate whatever threat the Omicron variant of COVID-19 might bring our way.

Tanner Medical Group, Infectious Disease Care

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