The Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know

Photo of scientist working in laboratory with pipette and reagent for coronavirus testing behind fume hood

The omicron coronavirus variant has overtaken delta as the dominant strain in the United States.

Why is the new variant called omicron?

The coronavirus, like all viruses, changes over time as it looks for ways to avoid our defenses, and scientists use letters of the Greek alphabet to name each variant. After the original coronavirus mutated, one of the first variants was dubbed the alpha variant. Since then, scientists have identified an additional six variants, with omicron being the latest.

How are coronavirus variants classified?

Variants are classified either as variants of interest (VOI) or variants of concern (VOC). Omicron is classified as a VOC, as is the delta variant, which is more contagious than earlier coronavirus variants and is still the predominant strain in the United States.

The VOC classification means scientists have noted:

  • An increase in virus contagiousness or other serious changes to the virus makeup; OR
  • An increase in the severity of disease; OR
  • A decrease in effectiveness of available testing, vaccines and treatments.

Scientists classified omicron as a VOC because preliminary evidence shows it is more contagious.

How serious is the omicron variant?

Each coronavirus variant includes mutations that help the virus to survive and spread. For instance, before omicron, the delta variant had the most known mutations, and it was the most contagious variant.

Scientists have identified many more mutations in omicron, including nearly 30 that are unique to this variant, that make the virus more contagious. Although it spreads more easily than past coronavirus variants, there are still details about it that remain unknown, including whether it causes more severe illness.

The good news is that there’s no reason to panic. We already have ways to protect ourselves from the omicron variant.

How can I protect myself from the omicron variant?

Get vaccinated. The best way to stop viruses from mutating is to slow their spread, and the best way to slow their spread is through vaccination. Scientists are confident the existing vaccines will continue to offer protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

And there’s another bright spot: Scientists are learning more about booster shots, and it appears the booster does more than just “top off” antibody levels. It might even help broaden your defenses in a way that offers protection against omicron and future variants. Learn more about boosters.

So, the message on vaccines is simple: Everyone 5 and older should get vaccinated, and boosters are recommended for everyone 12 and older. Find a vaccinator near you.

Masking and distancing. These public health measures, along with good hand hygiene, are proven to reduce infection from a variety of viruses, including the coronavirus. Wearing a mask or keeping your distance is another way to prevent spread and, by extension, deny the virus a chance to survive and spread.

Read more stories like this