As the first case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant is detected in the US, many have questioned what this mutation means for infection, testing and vaccines.
“There was a variant discovered and a day later the whole world knew and was looking for it,” said Director of Molecular Microbiology at Northshore University Health System Dr. Paige Larkin, Ph.D.
While it is shown to spread more rapidly in Africa, where the first red flag went up, vaccination rates are low, so officials do not know if the variant is more contagious than other forms of COVID-19. So far, health officials do know cases have been mild and symptoms are slightly different, with no complaints of lack of taste or smell.
“We see mutations and variants like this because of the lack of vaccination as well as a naïve immune system,” Larkin said. “So in certain parts of the world, there is vaccine inequality and because of that it allows the virus to spread more.”
When COVID-19 was first identified, scientists pointed to its unique spike protein. In the mutation of SARS-CoV-2, Omicron displays more than 30 alterations in the S-gene, part of the spike system. Why is that important? Current vaccines target the spike protein. Experts say the spike is still present, although different in Omicron.
“The good news is that the spike protein is still there, so our vaccines, especially the mRNA vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer, those target the spike proteins since it’s still there our body should recognize it,” Larkin said. “These mutations are really tiny. They are specific mutations within the protein, so the overall shape is the same.”
And that means current PCR and rapid antigen testing methods can detect Omicron.
“Because those tests that target S-gene, those target multiple targets including N gene, those will still be positive,” Larkin said. “So you’ll see two out of the three targets being positive instead of all three positive. So you’ll still pick it up. It will still be positive.”
When it comes to any COVID-19 variant, health professionals have identified ways to protect people to avoid a positive test. Those still hold true.
“So our common precautions like wearing a mask, keeping space, staying home when sick, that’s most important as well as getting the vaccine,” Larkin said.
Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson, are already working on an updated version of the vaccine and they are testing those with omicron samples in the lab. They are also using current vaccines against Omicron to better gauge the efficacy of the shot you may have already received.