In less than a month, the omicron variant of COVID-19 has gone from being first detected in the US to the dominant variant circulating.
According to the most recent CDC data released on Christmas, omicron accounted for 58.6% of all positive COVID-19 cases nationwide.
“This current virus- the omicron variant- has about 50 mutations; more than 30 in the spike protein domain, which is more mutations than we’ve seen in any of the coronavirus variants so far,” said Dr. Phil Stahel, Chief Medical Officer at the Medical Center of Aurora in Colorado.
For comparison, delta had around 13 mutations. Dr. Stahel says the vast number of mutations in omicron means our body’s antibodies have a more difficult time recognizing COVID as COVID.
It is the main reason why researchers say omicron is 20x more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19 and 2.5 times as transmissible as delta, even if you are vaccinated.
“Omicron has mutated so much that it has less affinity in terms of the antibodies from the vaccine recognizing it, so, therefore, the answer is the booster shot, because you will overwhelm the virus with the quantity of the immune response even if there is not a perfect match,” said Dr. Stahel.
A study out of Denmark shows people with the booster were 56% less likely to become infected by omicron if a member in their household had it compared to people who only had two doses of the vaccine.
Go deeper, however, the vaccine does appear to do a great job of preventing serious infection. Researchers in South Africa found that even though omicron’s mutations allow it to circumvent the vaccine’s antibodies easily, it does a poor job at escaping T-cells, our body’s second line of defense that prevents serious infection.
The kicker though: that only applies to people who have been infected in the last three months or are vaccinated.
“We may still get the virus. We may still get sick. We may be miserable for a few days, but it is no longer a catastrophe. We will not be admitted to hospitals, and we will not die from SARS-COVID-2,” said Dr. Stahel.
Moving forward, Dr. Stahel says COVID will become more of a common cold, but that will only happen until we reach herd immunity.
Until then, he and other researchers say omicron poses more of a significant risk of serious health issues and death in those who are unvaccinated compared to those who are.