Two Weeks After Omicron Came Into Our Lives, What Do Experts Know About It?

The most pressing questions on omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant of concern, and its spread through Israel

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A COVID-19 vaccination drive in Jerusalem, last month.
A COVID-19 vaccination drive in Jerusalem, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The omicron variant was first identified two weeks ago, and it is still unclear just how much it is to be feared. The World Health Organization has already defined it as “concerning,” and some studies around the world have shown it to be highly contagious and more resistant to the vaccines compared to other variants. However, a small study held in South Africa, where omicron has become the dominant variant, showed that those infected with it suffer less severe symptoms. In Israel and around the world, authorities are deliberating on how to protect from omicron based on initial and preliminary data. This is what we know about the omicron variant thus far:

Why is the new variant so concerning?

Omicron includes 50 mutations, including over 30 mutations in the spike protein. Various areas in the spike protein serve different functions for the virus, both in its binding to the body’s cells and in evading the immune system. Experts believed that these mutations give omicron better ability to elude the immune system compared to previous variants, and an increased infection capacity. The few studies held thus far confirm these fears.

What do studies say about the vaccine’s effectiveness?

Some studies held in recent days show that people vaccinated with three doses are significantly protected from the variant. However, there is still no clear answer as to how well the vaccine protects from this variant.

What do we know about the variant’s contagiousness?

Omicron has spread through South Africa very rapidly. A month ago there were fewer than 300 new cases per day, but in recent days the daily rate has reached over 15,000. However, the rate of the population with even just two doses in South Africa is only 25 percent, and the country has yet to administer the booster shot. A study by the National Institute for Infectious Diseases in South Africa has shown data indicating that omicron is three times as likely to cause repeat infection.

The report by the British agency published on Friday estimated that omicron will quickly spread through the country, and that the daily number of new cases will double every two or three days if steps are not taken to stop the variant. The situation is the same in Denmark and Germany as well. According to estimates, the daily number of new infections in the U.K. will reach a million by the end of the month. Some 68 percent of the British population are immunized by two doses, and about a third by a booster a well. The British study also noted that the risk of those infected with omicron to infect their families is three times as high as those infected with the delta variant.

What do we know of the severity of the illness?

Data about the severity of the illness caused by omicron is still unclear, and is thus far based on physician and media reports and not on the findings of orderly studies. The head of advisory cabinet to the Health Ministry, Prof. Ran Balicer, tweeted on Saturday that “Not enough time has passed to understand the rate of severe illness among vaccinated patients and a rate of severe illness among the non-vaccinated has yet to be presented.” The chief medical advisor of the British health safety agency, Dr. Susan Hopkins, explained that it is too early to know whether this variant causes a milder illness than the delta variant.

Last week the New York Times reported that researchers at a large medical center in Pretoria, South Africa said that their omicron-infected patients suffered less from symptoms than patients infected by other variants. According to the report, other hospitals in the country reported a similar trend. However, it is still early to determine that the illness from omicron is indeed less severe.

How is the world dealing with the variant?

The omicron outbreak has brought the question of whether to make vaccinations mandatory back to the forefront. Among others, Austria has announced mandatory vaccinations in the country as of February 1st. New German chancellor Olaf Schulz has announced that he will raise a proposal for such a mandate, and the EU commissioner has announced that the European Union should consider a similar mandate. The COVID czar in Israel, Prof. Salman Zarka, said that mandatory vaccination should be examined in Israel.

And what is being done in Israel?

In order to prevent the spread of omicron in Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wishes to increase the number of daily vaccinations tenfold and impose new restrictions. On Saturday, Bennett announced a daily update of the red countries list and the promotion of a green pass requirement in malls. On Sunday, two countries joined the red list: The U.K. and Denmark. In addition, last week the Health Ministry decided that those infected with omicron will be quarantined for 14 days, rather than 10 like other COVID patients.

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