For nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown countless curve balls at Canadians and it shows no sign of stopping.
Many scientists are studying the mutation, seeking to provide answers to the hundreds of questions being asked.
Here is what we know about Omicron so far. Much of this could change, and when it does, this post will be updated as needed.
Where was Omicron found?
Towards the end of November, COVID-19 infections in South Africa began increasing steeply. While studying the spike, scientists came across a new mutation on Nov. 24.
Shortly after its discovery, South African officials alerted the world to the new variant. Two days after the mutation was found, the World Health Organization designated it a variant of concern, as it had previously with Delta and Alpha, and named it Omicron.
Since its discovery, Omicron has been confirmed to be found in 149 countries, including Canada, according to WHO, with cases doubling every two to three days.
Omicron’s “substantial growth advantage” over the Delta variant means it is likely to soon overtake it as the dominant variant in those countries, the U.N. health agency said.
According to the WHO, Omicron poses a “very high” risk to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some preliminary evidence has emerged about Omicron, including its symptoms, which seem to be slightly different from Delta according to Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of South Africa’s medical association. She recently told Global News that patients she’s aware of are reporting headaches and body aches, and a slight sore throat.
Commonly reported symptoms of Omicron included cough, fatigue and congestion or runny nose, according to the WHO. It cited U.S. data during the update, which the WHO said looked at 43 partially and fully vaccinated individuals who were infected with Omicron, the majority being 18 to 39 years of age.
Recently, the WHO reported growing evidence that Omicron is causing milder symptoms, and that it’s affecting the upper part of the body.
However, the WHO cites that early data suggests severity increases with age and in the presence of underlying medical conditions, as well as among people who are not vaccinated.
“Also, current evidence about severity and hospitalization comes largely from countries with high levels of population immunity, and there remains uncertainty about the severity of Omicron in populations with different vaccination coverage and prior exposure to other variants,” the agency said on Jan. 7.
How fast does Omicron spread?
The transmissibility of Omicron has concerned researchers worldwide, and Canadian officials have projected that if it replaces Delta as the dominant strain in the country, daily infections could hit 26,600 a day nationally by mid-January.
Ontario — the only province tracking Omicron’s reproductive rate — has reported that it’s infecting almost two times as many people as the Delta variant.
On Jan. 7, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Omicron is now the “predominant strain” of the virus in the country.
Studies are emerging with encouraging results on the severity of Omicron. The WHO has acknowledged that Omicron appears to cause less severe disease, but it shouldn’t be called “mild.”
In Ontario, researchers announced on Dec. 30 they found the risk of hospitalization or death was 54 per cent lower for Omicron cases as compared to Delta cases. Researchers examined more than 6,000 cases between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17, but warn due to the transmissibility of Omicron, “the absolute number of hospitalizations and impact on the health-care system is likely to be significant.”
The U.K. Health Security Agency announced on Dec. 23 its findings that those with the Omicron variant were 50 to 70 per cent less likely to be hospitalized compared to those with Delta. One researcher called the finding from preliminary data “a small ray of sunlight.”
Meanwhile, Imperial College London published a study a day earlier that showed that those infected with Omicron were around 20 per cent less likely to go to the hospital at all than those who have the Delta variant, and 40 per cent less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.
The analysis was based on all COVID-19 cases confirmed by PCR tests in England in the first half of December, of which there were 56,000 cases of Omicron and 269,000 cases of Delta.
Earlier data out of South Africa also showed that Omicron is causing less severe illness than other variants. According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, only 30 per cent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks have been seriously ill.
Omicron’s impact on the elderly is still one of the big unanswered questions as most of the cases studied so far have been in younger people.
How many vaccinated are being infected
The WHO said Jan. 7 there is preliminary data from multiple non-peer reviewed studies suggesting that there is a reduction in protection against Omicron in individuals who have received two-vaccine doses and in those previously infected with COVID-19.
Also, increased risk of reinfection has been reported in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Israel, all suggesting immune evasion against Omicron.
The recent numbers emerging from the province can provide a snapshot of how Canadians with different vaccination statuses are faring against the variant.
The Ontario government’s latest figures indicate 80 per cent of cases were among the fully vaccinated. According to the government, 82 per cent of Ontario’s eligible population five and older are fully inoculated.
How effective are vaccines against Omicron?
Vaccines are still one of the best ways to protect yourself against COVID-19, according to Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor.
Speaking to reporters on Dec. 13, she urged those who “haven’t had the vaccine” to “get the first and second doses, including the younger children.”
However, that doesn’t mean vaccines don’t offer some measure of protection. Early studies show that the vaccines are still very effective at keeping you out of the hospital if you catch Omicron.
Pfizer: According to the latest findings from South Africa, people who are double vaccinated against COVID-19 with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine have 33 per cent protection against Omicron infection. However, the vaccine offered 70 per cent protection against hospitalization, according to Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer, and the South African Medical Research Council.
Moderna: Moderna’s efficacy against Omicron was tested alongside Pfizer’s in research done at the University of California. That research – which has yet to be peer-reviewed – found that after two doses of an mRNA vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna, efficacy against symptomatic infection from Omicron is only about 30 per cent – down from about 87 per cent versus Delta. The findings were later supported in pre-publication research from Moderna, which also found Moderna is less effective against Omicron.
The researchers added that protection against severe disease still sat around 86 per cent for recent mRNA vaccination against Omicron, and 67 per cent for waned immunity, according to Reuters.
How effective are the boosters at fighting Omicron?
The most important thing Canadians can do now is follow public health advice and “get your booster shots,” Tam said.
The early findings about boosters are promising. The United States’ top doctor, Anthony Fauci, has said that “booster vaccine regimens work against Omicron,” whether your dose is Pfizer or Moderna. He cited new data from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Research from the University of California indicates boosters can push protection against Omicron infection back up to roughly 48 per cent. As for preventing severe disease, boosters appear to push that efficacy back up to 91 per cent.
A study released in the United Kingdom also found a COVID booster shot can provide 71 to 75 per cent against mild symptoms of COVID-19.
Moderna recently shared a half dose of its vaccine as a booster increased neutralizing antibodies against Omicron 37 fold. A full shot as a booster dose of the same vaccine drove antibody levels even higher – more than 80 times pre-boost levels.
A Danish study released late last month indicated that a third dose of either Pfizer or Moderna offers a “significant increase” in protection against Omicron in elderly people.
The WHO also said Jan. 7 that booster shots increase vaccine effectiveness.
How effective are treatments at battling Omicron?
New COVID-19 treatments are also showing promising signs when it comes to the Omicron variant. Pfizer said on Dec. 14 its experimental COVID-19 pill appears to be effective against the Omicron variant.
The full results of Pfizer’s 2,250-person study found the drug reduced combined hospitalizations and deaths by about 89 per cent among high-risk adults when taken shortly after initial COVID-19 symptoms.
Separate laboratory testing also showed that the drug still works when it faces off against the Omicron variant, according to Pfizer.
The pill has since been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and has also been approved by Health Canada.
Merck, which makes the antiviral treatment molnupiravir, said its drug should have similar activity against any new COVID-19 variant, a company executive said during a general presentation not specific to Omicron last month.
Molnupiravir was shown to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by around 30 per cent in a clinical trial of high-risk individuals early in the course of the illness. It was approved for use in the United States by the FDA recently.
Merck’s treatment is still under Health Canada review.
What Omicron means for COVID-19 restrictions
Since Omicron’s emergence in Canada, governments have been introducing restrictions to slow its spread.
It began with travel restrictions from countries in Africa where the variant was discovered. Then at the federal level, the government advised against non-essential international travel as cases spiked worldwide.
Ahead of the holidays, governments in Canada began imposing restrictions to limit community spread, and they have continued to be introduced in January.
Ontario, which has reported record-breaking daily COVID-19 infections, has introduced a near province-wide shutdown to slow Omicron’s spread and preserve hospital capacity. Indoor dining, gyms and theatres are among the activities Ontarians can no longer do until Jan. 26 at the earliest.
In Quebec, the government introduced a curfew in addition to other measures to calm record infection numbers in the province.
Every province except Saskatchewan has delayed the return to in-person schooling as well to the dismay of parents and students who wanted to return to classes following the holidays.
Why Omicron after Delta
The World Health Organization (WHO) skipped two letters in the Greek alphabet in going from Delta to Omicron when naming the most recent SARS-CoV-2 variant.
The name Omicron comes after “nu” and “xi” in the alphabet, which the WHO said they skipped to avoid confusing the public and causing offence.
“`Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and `xi’ was not used because it is a common last name,” the WHO wrote in a statement to the Associated Press.
The organization added that it is not their intent to cause any “offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.” It is the first time the WHO skipped over a letter to name a variant.