4 unanswered questions about the new Omicron variant that scientists are racing to answer

President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci
President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci discuss the omicron COVID-19 variant at the White House on November 29, 2021. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci says it will take roughly two weeks before we have definitive data about the Omicron variant.
  • We don’t yet know whether Omicron spreads more easily or is more dangerous than Delta.
  • Regardless of variant, the best protection against COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, and to follow safety guidelines such as masking and distancing.

After a holiday weekend that began with frenzied headlines about a new coronavirus variant, and ended with the White House reinstating COVID-19 travel bans, President Joe Biden attempted to reassure the American public during a Monday press briefing.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said of B.1.1.529, which was first identified in South Africa on November 9 and reported to the World Health Organization on November 24.

The variant was dubbed Omicron and deemed a “variant of concern” by the WHO, in part because preliminary evidence suggests it may increase the risk of reinfection with COVID-19.

But for now, that’s about all experts know. 

It will take roughly two weeks for scientists to produce definitive data on how easily Omicron spreads and whether it’s more dangerous or deadly than past variants, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, told Biden during a Sunday briefing. Until we know more, Fauci stressed that booster shots for fully vaccinated Americans — and initial doses for the unvaccinated — are the best available protection against severe infection and death from COVID-19, including cases that originate from the Omicron variant.

In the meantime, here are the key questions scientists are racing to answer:

Is Omicron in the United States? 

Holiday travelers at LAX airport
Holiday travelers at LAX airport. The Omicron variant has not yet been detected in the US. Forge Productions/Shutterstock

Probably. 

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not detected any Omicron cases as of Friday, the United States lags behind many nations in sequencing coronavirus samples.

“It’s almost definitely here already,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, spoke to that reality during an interview with CBS News on Sunday. “Just looking at the number of cases coming off planes this weekend, it’s almost a certainty that there have been cases that have gotten into the United States.”

In addition to cases identified in South Africa and surrounding countries, Omicron has been detected in the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, and Hong Kong, among others.

“It’s gonna move around the world,” Biden said during Monday’s press briefing. “I think it’s almost inevitable that there will at some point be that strain in the United States.”

Is Omicron more transmissible than Delta? 

South africa omicron testing
A healthcare worker conducts a COVID-19 test on a traveler at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on November 28, 2021. Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

Early evidence suggests it might be. 

Omicron has more than 30 mutations on the virus’ spike protein, which protrudes from the surface of the virus, and which the vaccines teach our immune systems to pinpoint. By comparison, Delta, the dominant virus variant around the world, has between 11 to 15 mutations on its spike protein, according to the CDC. 

Omicron’s constellation of mutations, coupled with its rapid spread in southern Africa, leads Nevan Krogan, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, to believe Omicron spreads as easily as Delta does. 

“There’s a good chance that it’s more transmissible,” Krogan told Insider.  

Sharon Peacock, who led the UK’s genetic sequencing of the novel coronavirus at the University of Cambridge, seemed to agree. So far, the data suggest the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” she told the Associated Press, although “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”

Is Omicron deadlier than previous variants?

Stock market trader new york
Investors have to brace for more market volatility thanks to the new Omicron variant. Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Again, it’s too soon to say.  

While early anecdotal evidence out of South Africa suggests that Omicron may produce mild disease, that picture is complicated by the fact that in South Africa, the new variant has been primarily detected in young people, who are less likely to develop severe disease from the virus in the first place, Krogan noted. 

Those infections track with low vaccination rates among young people between the ages of 18 and 34, only about a quarter of whom are vaccinated, according to Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s health minister

“The jury is still out in that regard,” Krogan said of the virus’ severity.

Can Omicron evade our vaccines?

A digital generated image of a COVID-19 cell.
A digital generated image of a COVID-19 cell. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Possibly.

In addition mutations on the spike protein, Omicron has mutations outside of spike, a phenomenon that Krogan and his team have been studying for months.  

“If we were going to draw the worst mutations we know on a board, this would be a perfect scenario,” he said. 

But while that might sound scary, it’s actually a sign that Krogan and his contemporaries in London, Paris, and New York have been on the right track with their research — and are already a step ahead of the game. They’ve been studying and anticipating combinations of nasty mutations on and off the spike protein for months. 

On Monday, Krogan boarded a plane to New York to pour over data with fellow scientists and write up an attack plan against the new variant.

While more data is needed to say for sure whether protection from previous infection or vaccination will hold up against Omicron, Krogan’s feeling is that the vaccines — and especially booster shots — will still continue to offer some protection. 

“You get this big spike of antibodies that target spike proteins,” he said of vaccination. Those antibodies may not be a perfect match for Omicron’s many mutations, he added. “But quantity often trumps specificity,” Krogan said.

Aria Bendix contributed to this report.