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What do we know about the Omicron variant?: Common questions answered

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Written by Sunnybrook

Omicron, the newest COVID-19 variant, has resulted in a sharp increase in infections across the province. What do we know about this new variant, and how can we get through this latest COVID wave? We asked Dr. Rob Kozak, a clinical microbiologist at Sunnybrook, to shed some light on the questions surrounding Omicron: its severity, how it impacts the effectiveness of vaccines, what the future of booster doses might be, and why it’s still important to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

What is the most up-to-date information that we know about Omicron at this time? Is it really less severe than previous variants?

We have seen reports from Europe and South Africa that suggest infection with Omicron is less severe than previous variants. Recently, researchers at Public Health Ontario (and Dr. Nick Daneman here at Sunnybrook) looked at thousands of cases in Ontario, and their data indicates that the risk of hospitalization and death was 65% lower with Omicron when compared to Delta. However, since the case numbers are so high, the impact on the health-care system is still significant.

People who are double vaccinated are making up a lot of the COVID-19 cases right now. Does this mean vaccines don’t work?

Not at all. Everyone needs to remember that one of the main roles of vaccines is to protect against severe infection, hospitalization and death. The vaccines are doing this very well. New studies have shown that a third dose helps improve the protection, as well as reducing the chance of getting infected, so it is important everyone get their third shot.

Read more: Common questions about COVID-19 third doses answered »

Will we need to be vaccinated or “boosted” regularly in order to maintain immunity against COVID-19?

It is difficult to say with absolute certainty since we need to study how long vaccine-induced immunity remains protective. I think in all likelihood we will get an annual COVID-19 booster because this will increase the levels of neutralizing antibodies that protect against infection and help limit transmission. The booster might be modified yearly depending on the variant that’s circulating, and likely given in the early fall since this is the beginning of the respiratory virus season, and reducing transmission is very important. This is what we do with our influenza vaccine. I can imagine a future where were received both vaccines at the same time so that we are protected every winter

With the virus spreading so rapidly, some people may feel like getting COVID (or Omicron) is inevitable, and wondering if they should just “get it over with.” There have even been rumours of people hosting “Omicron parties” in order to get exposed. What’s your take on this?

This is very sad to hear, and I hope people will think twice before doing this. Omicron may be less severe, but a small percentage of people will end up in hospital, the ICU or may die from the infection. If people allow the virus to spread uncontrolled we will continue to see large numbers of cases, and even the small percentage of this very large number of cases will be enough to overwhelm our health-care system. Remember, when our wards and ICUs are full of COVID-19 patients we have to suspend much-needed surgeries for others. Also, the virus could spread to health-care workers, keeping them from being able to come to work and provide the care the patients need.

What do we know right now about Omicron and Long COVID? Should the fear of developing Long COVID post-infection be something that people should be keeping top of mind during these times?

Absolutely. There is still a lot we don’t know about Long COVID and whether you are more or less at risk of developing it after infection with Omicron. Research done here at Sunnybrook showed that 28% of patients from the first wave had symptoms of Long COVID later. Even if this percentage is reduced for Omicron, that is still going to be a lot of people. And Long COVID is an awful condition to have since it really affects your quality of life for months after you recover.

How long can people expect this Omicron wave to last? How does the wave end?

I wish I could give an exact date, but it is difficult to predict this with certainty. In South Africa cases have been going down since hitting their peak in mid-December, so we may see a shorter wave than with previous variants. It is tough to say because this will also likely depend on the effectiveness of public health measures as well as how quickly we are able to achieve population immunity.

Will Omicron be the last we see of  ‘variants of concern’? How many more of these variants can we expect before this pandemic ‘ends’?

SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and as it makes copies of itself changes to the genome can occur, which mean the virus will continue to evolve and develop new variants. What we can’t predict is which of those may be more or less concerning. The only way to know is to keep looking at important markers (such as hospital admissions, patients in the ICU) and sequence the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 samples on a regular basis. That way we can associate mutations in the virus with outcomes. Here at Sunnybrook, our microbiology laboratory sequences a percentage of all COVID-19 positive samples in order to keep an eye out for new emerging variants.

Watch: How COVID-19 tests are processed »

What would your advice be to somebody who has yet to get vaccinated against COVID-19?

There are so many reasons to go out and get your shot. On a personal level, it can protect you from getting infected, and will protect you from getting really sick or worse. Nobody wants to miss out on what is important to them (seeing friends and family, being able to go to work, etc.) because they are sick. Even if you don’t care, being vaccinated can help reduce the chance of spreading the virus to those who are more vulnerable (including children under 5 who don’t qualify for the vaccine yet). On a big-picture level, getting vaccinated helps contribute to population immunity which will help end this wave sooner, and keep you out of hospital. I’ve watched my colleagues who see patients give nothing short of 110% for almost two years, but anything that can be done to reduce the burden on hospitals and give them the break they deserve should be done. Do your part and get vaccinated.

Things are hard right now. What’s helping you get by amidst yet another COVID wave?

You’re right that things are hard right now (and I’m sure they are for all Canadians), and I know that so many have it much worse than I do. I try my best to find the humour in the day to day and joke around with everyone in the lab. Not sure which they find worse at this point: the pandemic or my jokes. And I try to remind everyone (and myself) that this too shall pass.

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