New coronavirus variants crop up all the time. Why are health officials so concerned about this one - Michaeleen Doucleff
The list of symptoms of Covid-19 has grown longer and stranger throughout the pandemic. With so many people now vaccinated, the warning signs of an infection have grown more subtle and vague. That’s becoming especially evident as the omicron variant gallops around the world, squeezing through the nooks and crannies in the wall of immunity that’s been built over the past two years.
An international team of researchers has been tracking signs of infection throughout the pandemic with the Covid Symptom Study using a mobile app where users could self-report their symptoms. Data on the omicron variant is still preliminary, but a group of 171 app users in the United Kingdom, most of whom are vaccinated, recently reported that their top symptoms for omicron were a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and a sore throat. These were also the top symptoms for people infected with the delta variant.
That’s a departure from “the classic three” Covid-19 symptoms of fever, cough, and loss of sense of smell or taste associated with earlier variants, researchers say.
“For most people, an omicron positive case will feel much more like the common cold, starting with a sore throat, runny nose, and a headache,” Tim Spector, a professor of epidemiology at King’s College London and the lead scientist for the symptom study, told the BBC this week. “We need to change public messaging urgently to save lives.”
Among the 171 people in the recent symptom data analysis who were suspected or confirmed to be infected with omicron by Britain’s National Health Service, the symptom study team found only half reported fever, cough, or a loss of taste or smell.
Researchers in Norway recently reported similar findings from an omicron outbreak among fully vaccinated guests of a Christmas party. In 87 confirmed or probable cases, the most common symptoms were cough, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue, sore throat, and headache. Just over half reported a fever, while 23 percent experienced a loss of taste and 12 had a decline in smell.
These cases are further evidence that the omicron variant is the most transmissible version of the virus so far, and it seems to be better able to evade prior immunity. Vaccines in the US still offer strong protection against severe illness, however, especially with a booster shot.
“We know we will continue to hear more about people who get infected who are vaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House press conference this week. “These people may get mild or asymptomatic infections and could unknowingly spread those infections to others.”
In South Africa, one of the first places where the omicron variant was detected, widespread vaccinations against the disease combined with some immunity from prior infection may explain why omicron seems to present with milder symptoms.
“We believe that it might not necessarily just be that omicron is less virulent, but we believe that this coverage of vaccination, also in addition to natural immunity of people who have already had contact with the virus, is also adding to the protection,” South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla told reporters last week. “That’s why we are seeing mild illness.”
In the US, 73 percent of the population has had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and more than 50 million people have been infected previously, so a significant portion of the population has some degree of protection against the disease.
Even so, some people with omicron will fall severely ill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Covid-19 symptoms that demand emergency medical care include sudden confusion; inability to stay awake; persistent chest pain or pressure; trouble breathing; and lips, fingernail beds, and skin turning blue, pale, or gray.
While a smaller percentage of the infected get sick enough to go to the hospital, the overall increase in cases from omicron could result in enough illness to overwhelm the US health care system in the coming months.
In addition, severe illnesses often start out with mild symptoms, and many Covid-19 treatments are most effective in the early stages of the disease. The Food and Drug Administration recently granted emergency authorization to the drug Paxlovid from Pfizer, the first oral antiviral to get a green light from the agency. It’s recommended for “mild-to-moderate” Covid-19 cases in people with risk factors for severe disease.
The emergence of the cold-like symptoms with the omicron variant means that getting tested to confirm whether someone is infected with Covid-19 is more critical than ever to slow the spread of the virus. For people with preexisting health conditions, identifying infections early is key to deploying effective treatments in time.
Frequent rapid testing for Covid-19 can catch omicron cases, though they tend to have lower accuracy compared to more expensive and time-consuming PCR tests. Many local health departments are scaling up their public testing systems, and the FDA has increased the number of rapid rests authorized for use. But in some areas, rapid tests remain scarce and too costly to use regularly.
So it’s crucial to take mild Covid-19 symptoms seriously and just as important to prevent infections in the first place. That requires getting vaccinated against Covid-19, getting a booster dose if eligible, wearing an effective face mask in public settings, and social distancing. Despite the latest twists in the pandemic, these measures remain the best bets for keeping the virus in check.
Source: Umair Irfan, How to recognize Covid-19 symptoms from the omicron variant, Vox, December 24, 2021.
As omicron continues to spread worldwide, public health experts contend it's critical that currently available COVID-19 tests are able to detect the variant and work as well as they did in detecting other strains such as delta. However, mutations in the viral targets of some tests could result in false negative results, according to FDA.
If you find out you’ve been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for Covid-19, a rush of questions might come to mind: Do I have to quarantine? What if I can’t find a good mask or a test? Even if I test negative, can I be certain that I’m not contagious?
Rapid tests help us navigate risk during the current wave, but studies raise questions about their ability to detect the Omicron variant.
So, according to the math, Omicron cases rising no longer automatically means impending doom and gloom, nor does it require apocalyptic language like we’re hearing from the media and political leaders implying mass waves of death with rapidly increasing case rates.
One silver lining to the latest surge: South African researchers have found that those infected with omicron in the country are, on average, less likely to end up in the hospital. And, as NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has reported, they also appear to recover more quickly from illness, compared to the other variants.
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More alarming than the news headlines are the policies by several Western or wealthy nations to ban travelers from Africa as a way to stem the spread of this variant. This action is an unscientific kneejerk reaction that will have severe economic consequences for African countries struggling to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
The new variant poses a far graver threat at the collective level than the individual one—the kind of test that the U.S. has repeatedly failed.
Researchers are racing to determine how widespread the Omicron variant might be across the U.S., scouring Covid-19 test samples and in some cases even examining wastewater.
As the world waits for studies that give a clear picture of the Omicron variant, early clinical data emerging from South Africa hint at a virus that may cause less severe cases of Covid-19.
Hospitals, drug companies and Biden administration officials are racing to address one of the Omicron variant’s biggest threats: Two of the three monoclonal antibody treatments that doctors have depended on to keep Covid-19 patients from becoming seriously ill do not appear to thwart the latest version of the coronavirus.
The new variant seems to be our quickest one yet. That makes it harder to catch with the tests we have.
How did high-income countries respond to the news? Unfortunately, with knee-jerk travel bans rather than anything that might be mistaken for a coherent public health response.
All travel bans accomplish in countries with selective red-listed countries is delay the inevitable. More could possibly be accomplished by rigorous exit and entry screening programmes to identify potential cases and mandating vaccination.
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There is no information yet on whether the variant leads to a change in Covid symptoms or severity – this is something South African scientists will be closely monitoring. Since there is a lag between infections and more serious illness, it will take several weeks before any clear data is available. At this stage, scientists say there is no strong reason to suspect that the latest variant will be either worse or milder.
We don’t know how severe Omicron is, but we do know it’s spreading very fast.
Now the alphabet has created its own political headache. When it came time to name the potentially dangerous new variant that has emerged in southern Africa, the next letter in alphabetical order was Nu, which officials thought would be too easily confused with “new.”
The letter after that was even more complicated: Xi, a name that in its transliteration, though not its pronunciation, happens to belong to the leader of China, Xi Jinping. So they skipped both and named the new variant Omicron.
Travel bans on countries detecting new variants, and the subsequent economic costs, may also act as a disincentive for countries to reveal variants of concern in future.
The WHO does not generally recommend flight bans or other forms of travel embargoes. Instead, it argues interventions of proven value should be prioritised: vaccination, hand hygiene, physical distancing, well-fitted masks, and good ventilation.
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The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 metre from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.