The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named the new COVID-19 strain the Omicron variant as one of concern, but is also cautiously suggesting that it may not be any more severe than other variants.

The first UK data of its kind has revealed that Omicron indeed appears to be milder than Delta, with a 20 to 25 per cent reduced chance of a hospital visit, and at least a 40 per cent lower risk of being admitted overnight.

Omicron has now been detected in over 60 countries including Australia, South Africa, Botswana, Israel, Italy and Hong Kong with further cases being reported in Denmark, the UK, and the US. It’s still relatively new and scientists are still determining the best course of action regarding the variant, but here’s everything we know about it so far.

How Is Omicron pronounced?

Omicron is pronounced “oh-muh-cron”.

Is Omicron worse than Delta?

Senior scientists initially said the Omicron strain of COVID is worrying, but WHO has said the variant appears to be no more severe than any other variants.

New data released by Imperial College London in December confirmed that the variant is less severe than others, with overnight hospitalisation at least 40 per cent less likely with Omicron.

“The preliminary data doesn’t indicate that [it] is more severe,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said, per News.com.au. But the Omicron variant is likely more transmissible than other variants.

The daily COVID cases topped 100,000 for the first time on December 22, and experts have warned that its high transmissibility could see an overwhelmed healthcare system there.

In Australia, so far the hospitalisation rate is lower than it was during the height of the Delta outbreak in September. But Experts say a lag of 10 to 14 days from when cases are reported and subsequent hospitalisations is normal.

Speaking at a press conference on December 23, Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia’s hospital system was well-equipped to deal with rising numbers, as not as many people are needing intensive care.

“It was reaffirmed in National Cabinet yesterday that the surge capacity, which had been created, is in place across the country,” Hunt said.

But then the second thing is, despite an increase in case numbers, we’re not seeing an increase in the serious cases of ICU or ventilation in any significant way, with no increase in ventilation on the latest numbers that I have.” 

That being said, there’s still more research needed before we make any definitive claims, especially since a lot of the data is based on young, healthy people who are already less likely to be hospitalised in general.

What we do know is that Omicron has around 32 different spike mutations, which are twice as many as Delta — making it the most mutated version of COVID so far, and highly transmissible. It’s already become the dominant variant in South Africa, according to the Australian Department of Health.

Spike proteins are those little spikes on the virus exterior which play an important role in penetrating host cells and initiating infection. This is what many COVID-19 vaccines target by instructing our immune system to make our own version of the spike protein, which then prompts antibody production.

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

According to the first South African doctor to alert the authorities about patients with the Omicron variant, chairman of the South African Medical Association Dr Angelique Coetzee, the symptoms of the Omicron variant are unusual and actually milder, at least in young healthy people.

She said the patients that contracted the new variant included young people, who felt intense fatigue, and there was a six-year-old child who had a very high pulse rate. Interestingly, no one had a loss of taste and smell, which was one of the key symptoms of previous COVID variants.

“Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,” Dr Coetzee said, via The Telegraph.

She said that most of her patients with the Omicron variant were young men who felt “so tired”.

“It presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two, not feeling well. So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms. Of those infected some are currently being treated at home,” Coetzee said.

That being said, the disease could look different in people that are more vulnerable, like the elderly or immunocompromised. She said that those that are vulnerable, or unvaccinated, or both, are at risk of developing a more severe form of the disease.

Is the new variant resistant to current COVID vaccines?

The Omicron variant’s mutations make the proteins of the virus different compared to the ones vaccines were originally based on, so scientists are warning there could be a resistant to vaccines.

“The pathogen genomics show mutations that are associated with resistance to neutralising antibodies and immune evasion, suggesting some degree of vaccine escape is likely. Vaccines will still likely provide protection against severe disease, but we do not yet have data to quantify this,” Head of Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at UNSW Professor Raina MacIntyre said.

Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergency director who we mentioned earlier, said that it’s “highly unlikely” Omicron will be fully resistant to COVID vaccines.

“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation,” he said, per News.com.au.

Of course, there’s still a lot of research to be done before we can say that for sure regarding Omicron. But the good news is, Pfizer’s most recent data suggests three doses of its vaccine should protect against infection of the Omicron variant. And worse comes to worst, if Omicron is found to be resistant to current COVID vaccines, Pfizer can update, manufacture and distribute a new vaccine in less than 100 days if necessary.

This week, the Australian Government announced it would be shortening the waiting time for booster shots from six to five months to manage the spread and severity of Omicron.

How likely am I to catch COVID twice now?

Several clinical studies published in 2021 found that the risk of repeat infection decreased by around 80 per cent within a year of the first infection.

One US clinical study of young, healthy 18 to 20-year-olds found that infection was 82 per cent less likely in those who’d previously tested positive.

But that was pre-Omicron, so reinfection is still possible and could be more likely than we thought.

We don’t have much research on Omicron yet, but we know it’s more transmissible than all the other variants so the risk of reinfection could be higher.

It’s unclear what level of immunity occurs after an omicron infection, but one UK study published in December concluded that the risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant was more than five times higher than Delta.

Experts are also concerned for new variants emerging, as it’s more likely you can be reinfected with COVID if it’s a different variant to your first infection.

When Delta arrived, UK research suggested it raised the risk of COVID reinfection risk by 46 per cent in people who’d already had it, but with a different variant.

What does this mean for Australia regarding travel?

The Australian Government has announced a delay in international borders opening up and a ban of flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique. The ban doesn’t include western countries to have found the virus, such as Israel, Italy, Belgium and the UK, leading to accusations of racism from the Australian Government. Very on brand, it seems.

Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members arriving from these nine countries must go into “immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days subject to jurisdictional arrangements”.

There have also been changes in isolation requirements for all other international arrivals into NSW and Victoria, who must isolate for 72 hours and wait for more information. For those that aren’t vaccinated, it’s hotel quarantine, which is what the current rules are anyway.

On December 6 it was announced that NSW and Victoria will not aim for an ‘Omicron Zero’ elimination strategy. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has said the two states will do “everything we can” to keep their respective borders open so that families may freely reunite in time for Christmas.

South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has opted for a more cautious approach, mandating extra testing for travellers entering his state from NSW and Vic and hasn’t ruled out shutting the border if cases increase. 

Will Australia go back into lockdowns?

The decision to go into lockdown depends on state governments, though Prime Minister Scott Morrison told SBS News: “We’re not going back to lockdowns, none of us want that.”

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has also said he’s “not keen to see a return of lockdowns” in his state.

What does the future look like with Omicron?

Omicron was flagged because based on preliminary evidence it spreads quickly. A variant of concern basically refers to a variant that could change how the pandemic behaves. Basically, WHO flagged the new strain so scientists can give it the attention it needs, not so we panic.

While it’s concerning to hear of yet another variant, especially after the way Delta upheaved our lives, it’s important to remember we’ve come a long way since then, and are much more prepared for outbreaks.

There have been 13 variants of SARS-CoV-2, some of which were named variants of concern, and then had that label removed because they weren’t as bad as we feared. This doesn’t mean Omicron is benign, but that we are learning more about the virus every day, and it’s important to pay attention to data. Stay informed and alert, but don’t panic.

At the moment, the best tool we have to protect ourselves is still to get vaccinated, practice good hygiene and hand washing, and practice social distancing.

Have any more Qs about Omicron? Check out our FAQ yarn here.

Image: Getty Images / Lisa Maree Williams