EXPLAINER - Boosters are key to fighting omicron. There is still much to learn

It took just a few weeks for the new omicron version to live up to dire predictions regarding how contagious it was. Scientists don't know if it causes more severe diseases, even though there are exploding cases around Christmas.

EXPLAINER - Boosters are key to fighting omicron. There is still much to learn

"Everything is now riskier because omicron has so much more contagious," Dr. S. Wesley Long said. He directs the Houston Methodist Hospital's testing laboratory and has had to cancel numerous plans to avoid being exposed over the past week.

Federal health officials announced Monday that Omicron is now the predominant variant in the U.S.

Public health officials are amazed at the speed with which it is outpacing the contagious delta variant. Houston Methodist's testing stations have now identified 80% of omicron-positive cases. Long stated that it took three months for the delta variant to reach this level.

The mutant's ability spread faster and evade immunity occurred at a terrible time. This was right as people began to relax and travel became more common. The implications of the omicron waves for the world are still unknown as many questions remain unanswered.

This is the most recent information about omicron.

WHAT PROTECTION DO VACCINES PROVIDE?

Vaccines available in the U.S., and other countries around the globe, do not provide the same protection against omicron as those that were used to protect against coronavirus. However, vaccines still help -- a lot. Laboratory tests have shown that, while two doses might not be enough to prevent infection from occurring, booster shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines produce virus-fighting antibodies that can fight omicron.

The levels of antibodies naturally fall over time. A booster turned them back on again by revving them up 25 times for Pfizer's additional shot and 37 times to Moderna's. Nobody knows what antibody level is sufficient to cause a drop in levels.

According to Dr. Egon Ozer from Northwestern University, protection against an Omicron infection is still 20% lower than that against the Delta variant even after a booster.

However, vaccinated people have additional protection in case the virus reaches the second line of defense.

Houston Methodist's Long stated that vaccines will protect against serious diseases, hospitalizations and death. "And that's the most important thing."

These extra defenses include memory cells that race to produce more antibodies once they are reactivated and T cells that activate to fight the virus.

HOW ABOUT NATURAL IMMUNITY?

Although it doesn't appear to provide much protection from an omicron infection, it can reduce the chance of severe illness.

Scientists in South Africa reported an increase in reinfections after omicron spreads widely. This was compared to the two previous mutants (including delta) that had passed through the country.

A Friday report by the Imperial College of London found that the risk of reinfection with omicron in Britain was five times greater than the earlier delta variant.

Experts recommend that anyone who has survived COVID-19 should still be vaccinated. The combination provides greater protection.

WHY DOES OMICRON BREAK SO FAST?

Scientists are working to unravel the many mutations carried by omicron to discover what else might be going on. Recent Hong Kong research suggests that omicron could multiply faster in the airway than Delta, but not as efficiently deep within the lungs.

Scientists can't measure human behavior. Winter forced many people indoors, and there were many places that had relaxed restrictions. Travel has increased as the omicron spread.

OMICRON CAUSES MILDER ILLNESS

It is still too early to tell, especially since if the vaccinated have a breakthrough infection it should be less severe than if an omicron infects the unvaccinated.

Although South Africa's initial reports suggested milder symptoms, doctors weren't sure if that was because of the young population or because many people had been protected from a recent Delta infection.

The British study did not find any evidence that omicron is milder than Delta in Britain. This was even true for young adults, who are more likely to develop milder illnesses and have higher rates of infection with Omicron.

"There is a hint and many people are hopeful that the omicron will be less severe. However, I doubt we can put our money on it. "We're still talking SARS CoV-2," Dr. Jacob Lemieux said, who monitors variants in a Harvard Medical School-led research collaboration.

WHO IS THE MOST RISKY?

According to the behavior of other variants, "if your age is greater, if there are underlying conditions or if you are obese, then you are more likely to develop severe diseases." It won't be any different," said Dr. Carlos del Rio from Emory University.

Even if you aren't very sick, an Omicron infection can ruin your holiday plans. Experts agree that you should get vaccinated, boosted and wear masks indoors. Avoid crowds and keep your distance.

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