Pressing Questions About the COVID-19 Omicron Variant Answered

With the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina answered some common questions about its symptoms and risks.


Air Date: December 1, 2021

Moderator: Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, Founder, Your Local Epidemiologist

In late November 2021, the World Health Organization identified a new variant of the COVID-19 virus known as Omicron. This variant caused a spike in cases in South Africa, where researchers were able to quickly study and identify the variant’s mutations.

The discovery of Omicron has understandably caused some concern among the public about the course of the pandemic and the variant’s potential threat to public health. To help educate people about this new variant, epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation for an “Ask Me Anything” session to help business and community leaders better understand Omicron. Below are the answers to some of the top questions she was asked.

Vaccines Should Be Effective Against Omicron

Because COVID-19 vaccines were created with variants in mind, they should be adaptable enough to protect against Omicron when combined with the human immune system, said Dr. Jetelina.

“We hypothesize that what will happen with Omicron is the number of target sites that antibodies can connect to will decrease, so there'll be less places an antibody can find to connect to the virus, but we think that there's still going to be places for it to connect,” said Dr. Jetelina.

“This is because of what’s called evolution competition,” she continued. “For a virus to survive it has to change enough to outsmart our vaccines, but can't change enough, or the virus’s ‘key’ doesn't fit. We think that if it has the same key, although changed a little, then our antibodies can still probably recognize parts of that key.”

Dr. Jetelina noted that there is also a strong hypothesis among the medical community that COVID-19 boosters “are going to play a significant role in our protection.”

The Symptoms of Omicron Are Similar to Other Variants

As of right now, the symptoms of the Omicron variant are similar to that of the original COVID-19 virus strand and the Delta variant. Scientists are still researching if Omicron is more easily transmissible and what long-term health effects it could cause.

“There is anecdotal evidence that among young people, there are mild symptoms,” said Dr. Jetelina. “We saw this before with Delta that younger kids and college kids are fine [after contracting] COVID-19.”

However, she noted that this isn't necessarily a representative sample of what may happen with Omicron.

“We're kind of at the mercy of time to see how well our bodies bode with Omicron,” Dr. Jetelina explained. “It’s important to recognize that hospitalizations and deaths lag about two to four weeks after cases rise. We've seen this consistent trend throughout the pandemic and so we're … unfortunately waiting to see really what happens.”

Omicron Will Not Bring Us Back to Square One of The Pandemic

The emergence of a new variant with so many mutations has many people worried that all of the progress in the fight against COVID-19 will be undone. However, Dr. Jetelina says this will likely not be the case.

“Our vaccines are incredible and our immune systems are incredible,” she said. “I certainly don't think we're going to have lockdowns. We have things that work. We know masks work. I know a lot of people don't like wearing them, but masks reduce transmission by 58% ... and we have amazing rapid antigen tests right now as well. And we're on top of this virus.”

“I can't emphasize enough how valuable it was for South Africa to identify this variant, share the data incredibly quickly, and share in real-time what's happening on the ground,” Dr. Jetelina added. “Thousands of scientists are already on top of this, trying to decode the threat. We’re not going to start from square one.”