What we know about the Omicron variant

What is Omicron and what precautions should you take to protect your family?

Teachers wearing masks and a face-shield as part of COVID-19 prevention
08 August 2022

The highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been driving an unprecedented surge of infections globally. We’ve gathered the latest expert information about this variant and will continue to update this article as more information becomes available.

For more tips and information on COVID-19, see our COVID-19 guide for parents.

Last updated: 8 August 2022

Jump to: 

What is the Omicron variant?
What do we know about the subvariants of Omicron? 
How did the Omicron variant develop?
Where is the Omicron variant present?
Is the Omicron variant more severe?
Is the Omicron variant more contagious?
Does the Omicron variant have different symptoms?
Vaccine effectiveness against the Omicron variant
Prior COVID-19 infection and the Omicron variant
Omicron variant and testing
Omicron variant and children
How to protect your family
How to talk to your child about Omicron


What is the Omicron variant? 

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been called a variant of concern by WHO. Omicron is spreading faster than any previous variant. The overall risk related to this variant remains very high.

What do we know about the subvariants of Omicron?

Since the Omicron variant emerged in late 2021, several subvariants have been observed. They’re all considered to be variants of concern, as the virus is circulating at intense levels worldwide. The BA.5 strain of Omicron is currently the dominant subvariant globally and the most contagious so far. BA.5 is not seen as more severe than the other Omicron subvariants and WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide strong protection against serious illness and death. Spikes in cases however, which are being observed globally, can put health services under extreme pressure.

With the huge increase in the number of cases, there has been an increase in hospitalizations in countries around the world. In many countries the lifting of public health measures, such as the use of masks and physical distancing, is contributing to the spread of the virus.

How did the Omicron variant develop? 

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.

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. 

Where is the Omicron variant present? 

Omicron has now been detected in most countries, after the variant was first detected in November 2021. 

Is the Omicron variant more severe than other COVID-19 variants? 

There is a reduced risk of hospitalization for Omicron compared to the Delta variant. But WHO warns that it should not be dismissed as “mild”. An increase in the number of COVID-19 related deaths because of the Omicron variant have been seen in many countries, especially where vaccination levels are low among vulnerable populations.

It is important to remember that all variants of COVID-19 can cause severe disease or death, which is why preventing the spread of the virus and reducing your risk of exposure to the virus is so important.

> What you need to know about the Delta variant

Is the Omicron variant more contagious? 

Yes, the Omicron variant is more contagious than previous variants. However, being vaccinated and taking precautions such as avoiding crowded spaces, keeping your distance from others and wearing a mask are critical in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

> See other precautions you can take.

Does the Omicron variant cause different symptoms?  

There is no information to suggest that Omicron causes different symptoms from other COVID-19 variants. Omicron does however typically cause less severe disease than previous variants like Delta.

Are the COVID-19 vaccines effective against the Omicron variant?  

The WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines continue to be highly effective at preventing severe illness and death, including against Omicron. The vaccines offer reduced protection against infection and mild disease from Omicron though, which is why it's important to continue taking measures to reduce the spread of the virus - such as physical distancing, mask wearing, good ventilation and regular handwashing.

It is also important to be vaccinated to protect against the other widely circulating variants, such as the Delta one. When it’s your turn, make sure to get vaccinated. If your vaccination involves two doses, it’s important to receive both in order to have the maximum protection.  

Read more about COVID-19 vaccines and explore what you need to know before, during and after getting vaccinated.

Is a prior COVID-19 infection effective against the Omicron variant?

If you had COVID-19 before, it is possible that you can be reinfected by Omicron. You should get vaccinated even if you’ve previously had COVID-19. While people who recover from COVID-19 may develop some natural immunity to the virus, we do not yet know how long it lasts or how well you are protected. Vaccines offer more reliable protection.

Do current COVID-19 tests detect the Omicron variant? 

The widely used PCR and antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests continue to detect infection of COVID-19, including Omicron.

Are children more likely to contract the Omicron variant? 

The Omicron variant is the most transmissible variant to date for all age groups, including both adults and children. So, an increase in the number of children affected is expected. People who are mixing socially and those who are unvaccinated are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19. 

How can I protect myself and my family against the Omicron variant?

The most important thing you can do is reduce your risk of exposure to the virus. The main ways to protect yourself and your loved ones are: 

  • Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth. Make sure that your hands are clean when you put on and remove your mask.
  • Keep a physical distance of at least 1 metre from others. 
  • Avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces.
  • Open windows to improve ventilation indoors.
  • Wash your hands regularly.  
  • When it’s your turn, get vaccinated. Check your local health authority for more information on the approved COVID-19 vaccines available to you.  

Read mask tips for families.

How can I talk to my child about the Omicron and other COVID-19 variants?

News about COVID-19 and now the Omicron variant is flooding our daily lives and it is only natural that curious young children will have questions – lots of them. Here are some pointers to keep in mind tips for helping to explain what can be a complicated topic in simple and reassuring terms. 

  • Children have a right to know what is going on, but it should be explained to them in an age-appropriate way. 
  • Invite your child to share what they have heard and listen to their responses. It is important to be fully engaged and take any fears they have seriously. Be patient, the pandemic and misinformation has caused a lot of worry and uncertainty for everyone.
  • Make sure that you are up to date on the latest information yourself. Websites of international organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization are great sources of information about the pandemic.
  • If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess. Use it as an opportunity to explore the answers together. 
  • Remember that kids take their emotional cues from adults, so even if you are worried for your little one knowing that they might be uncomfortable, try not to overshare your fears with your child. 

Learn how to talk to your child about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines.