What we don’t know: Amid all the panic, it’s important to remember that we still know very little about the new variant—and we’ve been worried before about variants that have come to nothing. The crucial questions are whether it increases transmissibility, whether it worsens health outcomes (thus pushing up deaths and hospitalizations), and, crucially, whether it erodes immunity afforded by vaccines or previous infections. We don’t have firm answers to any of these questions yet—although it seems likely, given the mutations, that it will affect the effectiveness of vaccines to some degree.
If that’s the case, then vaccine manufacturers will have to move quickly to come up with new versions. Luckily, with mRNA technology it is relatively easy to reformulate a vaccine. Moderna’s chief medical officer, Paul Burton, told the BBC on Sunday that his firm could have a new booster—one tweaked to handle omicron—ready to roll out as soon as early next year.
Researchers around the world are now racing to gather the data we need to know how worried we should be. We also don’t know exactly how omicron arose. Experts have long warned that uneven global vaccine access—South Africa, where omicron seems to have originated, has a vaccination rate of 35%—poses a global risk because it gives the virus more opportunities to mutate.
What you can do: As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the best thing you and your loved ones can do to protect yourselves is to get vaccinated. If you are offered a booster shot, take it. While it’s possible that omicron might degrade vaccine efficacy, it won’t eradicate it altogether.