The Atlantic Daily: What We Know About the Omicron Variant

Should you be panicking? No, but you should be paying attention.

A black and white photo of travelers with suitcases wearing masks
Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / Getty

The coronavirus is flying through the Greek alphabet. On Friday, the World Health Organization designated Omicron a “variant of concern”—spooking stock markets and triggering a new round of international travel bans. Today, President Joe Biden echoed the WHO’s language, calling Omicron a “cause for concern,” but warned Americans not to panic.

Little is known about the variant so far, my colleague Katherine J. Wu says. We caught up with Katie to discuss what we do know about the variant (which is pronounced OH-mi-cron or AH-mi-cron, if you were wondering) and what to watch for in the coming weeks.

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. What do—and don’t—we know about this variant right now?

We have the genetic sequence, and we know that there are more than 30 mutations in the gene that codes for the spike protein. But we don’t know if the mutations are significant. And we just don’t have a lot of data to go off of. We have all these hypotheses based on the sequence, but that’s not real-world data yet.

Scientists are still looking at three things: whether this variant actually spreads faster than others, whether it’s evading immune responses, and whether it causes more serious disease than other variants. We’ll know more by the middle-to-end of December.

2. Do the current vaccines work against Omicron?

We haven’t confirmed that yet. But even if this variant can evade some of the antibodies that vaccinated people produce, it is extraordinarily unlikely for this variant—or any other variant—to completely escape the vaccinated immune response. We are not going to completely plummet to zero protection.

3. Do fully vaccinated Americans need to take any additional precautions?

A good move now is to get a booster and make sure that we’re really paying attention to all those other measures we know are important—masking, distancing, paying attention to ventilation, and getting tested when you feel sick or think you’ve been exposed.

4. What about the unvaccinated?

This virus has shown over and over again that it is not going to play nicely with people who are unvaccinated. It’s also worth keeping in mind that leaving a large proportion of the population unvaccinated—whether that’s on a community level or a country level or global level—is actually how we get more variants like this.

Getting vaccinated is not just protecting you from sickness. It’s starving the virus of opportunities to transform into something that could pose more harm to us.

5. Could Omicron trigger another Delta-style surge in the United States, just in time for the holidays?

It’s really too early to speculate. We just don’t know enough about this variant. One thing to keep in mind is that what a virus does depends at least as much on us as the virus itself. We could totally forestall the nightmare situation. Is a surge possible? Yes. Is it also preventable? Absolutely.

I’m certainly thinking about how I can make my holiday plans as safe as possible. That doesn’t mean I’m canceling everything. But I’m thinking about stuff like, Where do I need to travel? Am I going to have enough tests handy? I’m just going through my checklist extra carefully.

6. What does this mean for the global fight against the virus?

This really highlights how important vaccine equity is. Something that affects one person in a global, interconnected community is ultimately going to affect everyone when the threat is infectious. We need to try to level the playing field—to make sure that people around the world have equal access to resources to protect themselves against this virus.

7. How much should we be panicking right now?

Not at all. It’s never time to panic. It’s counterproductive. Reacting wisely and reacting sensibly and using the tools we have is always the best move.

Don’t panic. Just pay attention. Try to keep your thinking about where the pandemic is going flexible—because it could go in any other direction still.

Stephen Sondheim
Douglas Elbinger / Getty

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