What you need to know about the Omicron variant

a blue mask on a table

PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY MOLLY SIMPSON / SPUTNIK PHOTOGRAPHY

Since it was first reported on Nov. 24, 2021, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has taken over the world and sent communities scrambling to catch up. 

 

COVID-19 cases are soaring worldwide, with Canada reporting over 40,000 cases in one day, on multiple occurrences. Although Ontario has recently released new COVID-19 restrictions, many still have questions about how the Omicron variant is different from previous variants, how concerned we should be, and how to be prepared for this next wave of the pandemic.

 

Despite how new the Omnicron variant is, more is learned about it constantly.

 

“The mutations in the Omicron variant’s spike proteins are just that much better at allowing that virus to get into cells and be able to replicate,” said Dr. Stephanie DeWitte-Orr, associate professor in the department of health sciences and biology, and associate dean of research and graduate studies for the faculty of science at Laurier’s Waterloo campus. 

 

A spike protein is what a virus uses to enter a cell. The Omicron variant has a large amount of mutations in its spike protein, which is what allows it to enter a cell so easily. This ability to enter cells and replicate is what makes it so transmissible, thus explaining the speed with which case numbers are rising. 

 

“It’s different enough from, let’s say the Delta variant, that spike protein, that our antibodies don’t recognize it as well,” said Dr. DeWitte-Orr.

 

This is why vaccines are seeming to be less effective against this variant. 

 

“Vaccines will still provide protection, but just not as much as it would’ve been with the Delta variant or previous variants,” said Dr. DeWitte-Orr.

 

Symptoms of the Omicron variant also seem to be slightly different from past variants. For example, a loss of taste and smell appear to be less common with Omicron than other variants.

 

Luckily, Omicron also seems to be less severe than previous variants. Hopefully, this will mean that even though case numbers are skyrocketing, hospitalizations and deaths will not do the same. 

 

These rising case numbers are still of concern though, as even if many cases are less severe, the sheer number of cases could still result in a large number of hospitalizations and deaths. The key to combating Omicron seems to be slowing down case numbers so that the healthcare system does not become overwhelmed. 

 

“Any public health restriction or directive that prevents people from coming into contact with the virus in the air is ideal,” said Dr. Todd Coleman, assistant professor in the department of health sciences at Laurier’s Waterloo campus. 

 

Because of this, the province of Ontario has recently implemented new COVID-19 restrictions that greatly limit the amount of people who can be together at one time. The goal is that by implementing these restrictions, the province can slow the spread of the Omicron variant. 

 

“We’re sort of in uncharted territory here because of the transmissibility, whether the restrictions are gonna be good enough, we’ll know from the data over the next couple weeks,” said Dr. Coleman.

 

While these restrictions may hopefully slow the spread of the virus, it is likely that once restrictions loosen, the virus will continue to spread. This is why vaccinations are so important. 

 

“We just need to be as immunologically primed as possible with our vaccine boosts so that when we get it, we don’t get super sick,” said Dr. DeWitte-Orr.

 

With a variant as contagious as Omicron, Dr. DeWitte-Orr feels that it is likely that most people will be infected at some point. The key is having a strong enough immune system to be able to avoid becoming seriously ill. 

 

It currently seems as though with a boost of the vaccine, most people are able to avoid serious illness and hospitalization. This way, if one does contract COVID-19, their immune system will likely be much more prepared to handle it.

 

Although reducing contact is important to slow the spread of COVID-19, there are ways to interact with others safely. Seeing others at least 6 feet apart, outdoors, with masks, is a safer method of still being able to see loved ones. 

 

Both mental and physical health can be balanced, even during a pandemic, with the key being able to find a way to prioritize both safely.

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