The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been called a variant of concern by WHO based on the evidence that it has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves. There is still substantial uncertainty regarding Omicron and a lot of research underway to evaluate its transmissibility, severity and reinfection risk.
Development of the Omicron Variant
When a virus is circulating widely and causing numerous infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases. The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.
New variants like Omicron are a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. It is therefore essential that people get the vaccine when available to them and continue to follow existing advice on preventing the spread of the virus, including physical distancing, wearing masks, regular handwashing and keeping indoor areas well ventilated.
It is also crucial that vaccines and other public health measures are accessible everywhere. Vaccine inequity leaves lower income countries – many of them in Africa – at the mercy of COVID-19. Well-supplied countries must urgently deliver the doses they promised.
Is Omicron variant less severe?
There is also emerging evidence that omicron tends not to burrow deep into the lungs as much as previous variants. A study, which was posted online by the University of Hong Kong and not yet peer-reviewed, found that while omicron is less severe in the lungs, it can replicate faster higher up in the respiratory tract.
In this way, omicron may act more like bronchitis than pneumonia, said Dr. Hugh Cassiere, director of critical care services for Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital at the North Shore University Hospital, on Long Island, New York.
“Usually patients with acute bronchitis tend not to be short of breath. They tend to cough and produce sputum,” he said. “Patients with pneumonia tend to be short of breath and feel more fatigued than bronchitis in general.”
A small study from the CDC found that people who had Covid and are later reinfected with omicron may experience fewer symptoms than they did during their initial bout with the virus.
Still, it’s virtually impossible for people to rely on symptoms to self-diagnose an illness. In addition to omicron, the delta variant continues to circulate, along with increasing cases of the flu.
For these reasons, doctors urge people who have any cold symptoms or flulike symptoms to get tested.
Symptoms of Omicron
- Most common symptoms: fever, cough ,tiredness, loss of taste or smell
- Less common symptoms: sore throat, headache aches and pains, diarrhoea, a rash on skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes red or irritated eyes
- Serious symptoms: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath loss of speech or mobility, or confusion, chest pain.
- Seek immediate medical attention if you have serious symptoms.
- Always call before visiting your doctor or health facility.
- People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should manage their symptoms at home.
- On average it takes 5–6 days from when someone is infected with the virus for symptoms to show, however it can take up to 14 days.
The symptoms of omicron generally start with body ache, generalised weakness, fatigue, headache and fever in the initial days and eventually they might also develop a cough which is sometimes dry along with a cold where there is water from the nose, sneezing, etc. The cough is typically dry which resolves over the next few days. Most of the time i.e. in 80% of the patients, fever is resolving over the first 3 days and if not, then that becomes a sign of moderate to severe infection which needs close monitoring.
How do you protect yourself and others?
The WHO has advised the following steps to protect yourself and prevent the spread of COVID-19:
- Get vaccinated
- Wear a mask
- Maintain physical distancing
- Ventilate indoor spaces
- Keep good hygiene
- Self-isolate if you develop symptoms
Effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against Omicron or Delta infection
A research shows that Two doses of COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to protect against infection by Omicron. A third dose provides some protection in the immediate term, but substantially less than against Delta. Our results may be confounded by behaviours that we were unable to account for in our analyses. Further research is needed to examine protection against severe outcomes.