What we know about the Omicron variant
What is Omicron and what precautions should you take to protect your family?
The highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 is 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: 14 January 2022
What is the Omicron variant?
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been called a variant of concern by WHO based on the evidence that it has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves. There is consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant in countries with documented community transmission, with a doubling time of 2-3 days. The overall risk related to this new variant remains very high.
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.
New 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. Well-supplied countries must urgently deliver the doses they promised.
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?
Early findings suggest that 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”. Increased transmission is expected to lead to more hospitalizations. That increase causes strain on frontline workers and healthcare systems, which in turn can result in more deaths.
It is important to remember that all variants of COVID-19 can cause severe disease or death, including the Delta variant that is still dominant worldwide, which is why preventing the spread of the virus and reducing your risk of exposure to the virus is so important.
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, and we know these actions have been effective against other variants.
Does the Omicron variant cause different symptoms?
There is no information to suggest that Omicron causes different COVID-19 symptoms from other COVID-19 variants.
Are the COVID-19 vaccines effective against the Omicron variant?
Researchers are looking into any potential impact the Omicron variant has on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Information is still limited, but there may be a small reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe illness and death, and a decline in preventing mild disease and infection. However, WHO reports that so far it looks like the currently available vaccines offer significant protection against severe disease and death.
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?
WHO reports that early evidence suggests that previous infection could offer less protection against Omicron in comparison to other variants of concern, such as Delta. Information is still limited though and we will share updates as it becomes available.
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?
Research is ongoing into Omicron’s transmissibility and we will update as more information becomes available. However, 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. To protect yourself and your loved ones, make sure to:
- 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. WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
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.