Omicron Update: Everything We Know About the New COVID Variant Omicron

updated January 3, 2022

What is Omicron?

Omicron is a new variant of COVID-19 that the WHO says poses a "very high" risk globally. First detected in South Africa in Nov 24, 2021, it has since turned up in over 100 countries. Omicron is more transmissible than Delta and has more vaccine resistance. This is because this variant has over 50 mutations, the most significant number found in any variant of interest to date. So far, Omicron has been detected in three travelers to the Philippines, with local officials raising the alarm to Alert Level 3 in Manila.

Will the new variant cause more severe disease? How much more resistant is it to our current vaccines? Scientists are working around the clock to answer these questions. Here is what we know so far.

Why is Omicron a potential threat?

Described by scientists as a “Frankenstein mix” of mutations, Omicron has put the world on high alert. Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, stated, "This new variant of the COVID-19 virus is very worrying. It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date."

But what are these mutations doing? Around the world we are seeing more transmission, more reinfections, and more resistance to the body's antibodies.

More transmissible

Omicron is the most transmissible form of the coronavirus yet. Up to this point, Delta had been the most contagious variant known. In nine months, Delta spread through every continent (except Antarctica). But Omicron is outpacing Delta significantly. Recognized on Nov 24, Omicron is rapidly becoming the dominant variant across the globe.  The WHO has predicted a "tsunami" of Omicron cases after the winter holidays.

More likely to cause reinfection

Scientists say that previous infection offers little protection against Omicron. South Africa has seen a sharp spike in reinfections. People who had previously caught COVID are getting sick again with the Omicron variant. That means the natural immunity we expect after COVID-19 infection is not warding off Omicron.

More resistant to antibodies

Mutations in Omicron make the virus more resistant to antibodies. This affects both naturally occurring antibodies and those conferred by the vaccine. Omicron has seen a large number of breakthrough infections. A breakthrough infection is when a fully vaccinated person catches COVID-19. A recent study of 4 million people showed that breakthrough infections happen at a rate of roughly 1 in 100 vaccinated people. Before the Omicron variant arrived, that figure was 1 in 5000.

What are mutations and why are they dangerous?

As the COVID-19 virus spreads through the population, it makes more and more copies of itself. This continuous replication of the coronavirus allows for mutations to constantly arise. In fact, there have been thousands of coronavirus mutations. But most provide the virus with no advantage, so you never hear about them. Rarely, a mutation evolves that helps the virus. For instance, a mutation may make the virus more contagious or more resistant to our immune system. This was the case with COVID variants Alpha, Beta, Delta, and now, Omicron. The image below shows the difference in the protein structure of the virus between the Delta variant and the Omicron variant.

How has the Philippines reacted to Omicron?

There have been only three reported cases of Omicron in the Philippines. However, that could reflect slow lab processing times more than the actual number of cases. Hospitals are seeing a surge in cases after the holidays and Metro Manila has been put under Alert Level 3. Unvaccinated people are no longer allowed to leave their homes. To slow the spread, the Philippines has also enacted the following travel restrictions, which run from January 1, 2022.

Flight suspensions

No flights are allowed to or from the following countries: Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Spain.

No tourists

The IATF has deferred plans to reopen the Philippines to tourism.  No tourists are allowed.

Travel ban for red-listed countries

No travelers are permitted from red-listed countries. Countries on the red list include:  Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Spain. Exceptions may be made for Filipinos who arrive via government and non-government repatriation initiatives, and Bayanihan flights.

Travel restrictions for yellow and green-listed countries

Strict testing and quarantine protocols have been reinstated for people traveling from yellow and green listed countries.  Guidelines follow:

Requirements for fully vaccinated eligible travelers:

  • Negative RT-PCR test taken within 72 hours prior departure.
  • 5 days of facility-based quarantine.
  • Swab test on the 5th day (RT-PCR test).
  • Covid-negative patients are then released for home quarantine until the 14th day from arrival.

Requirements for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated eligible travelers:

  • Negative RT-PCR test taken within 72 hours prior departure.
  • 7 days of facility-based quarantine.
  • Swab test on the 5th day (RT-PCR test).
  • Covid-negative patients are then released for home quarantine until the 14th day from arrival.

Where Has Omicron Been Found?

Omicron has already spread to over 100 countries, and six continents.  Cases have been detected in many of the Philippines' neighbors, including Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It is now the dominant variant in many places, including the US and the UK. The live map below shows the countries with confirmed cases.

Hover over each country to see number of confirmed Omicron variant cases.

What can be done to prepare for Omicron?

Border closures alone will not prevent the spread of Omicron.  But they can buy us time to prepare.  Some steps you can take now to protect yourself include:  

Get Fully Vaccinated

Only one-third of Filipinos have received two doses of a COVID vaccine.  If you are among the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, get yourself fully vaccinated now. Note that if you are unvaccinated, current Philippine laws prohibit you from leaving your house.

Vaccine booster shots

Early data suggests our current vaccines are not as effective against the powerful new variant.  A recent Pfizer study showed we need three doses of the vaccine to ward off Omicron.  Getting a third vaccine dose, also known as a vaccine booster, is the best protection against Omicron.  Some countries, such as Israel and Canada, are even encouraging a fourth vaccine dose for vulnerable populations.

The Philippine DOH now provides boosters shots to every adult over 18.  You can avail of a booster at any vaccination center.  When to get a booster shot is less clear.  Government guidelines are still playing catchup with the research. There is conflicting information between the CDC, DOH, and vaccine-makers.  

Instead of automatically following local guidelines, consider your own health and situation.  Vulnerable populations, such as Sinovac recipients, senior citizens, and immunocompromised people may need a booster shot sooner than the DOH’s 3-month recommendation. 

Healthy people likely benefit from getting a vaccine booster sooner, too.  Speak to your doctor to see if you can receive your booster shot before the 3-month window.   An antibody test may help you determine whether your current antibody levels are still strong.

Less dependence on Sinovac

As of this writing, the DOH has approved eight COVID vaccine brands and now allows for mix-and-match booster shots.  If you were vaccinated with the less effective Sinovac, you can opt for a different brand for your vaccine booster. 

Rapid testing

The CDC recommends frequent, rapid testing to break the chains of transmission and slow the spread of the virus.  Both workforce and home testing is widely available in the Philippines.  Home healthcare companies, such as zennya Health, have already administered tens of thousands of antigen, PCR, and antibody tests since the pandemic began.

Will Vaccines Work Against Omicron?

Early data suggests that vaccines may be less powerful against the Omicron variant.  Research from Pfizer-BioNTech showed a 25-fold drop in the antibodies’ ability to neutralize the new variant.  Data from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that being fully vaccinated offers little protection against getting infected with Omicron. However, the same study showed it's still 88% effective at preventing people from hospitalization. Drug companies have pledged to reformulate their vaccines if needed. Until then, receiving a vaccine booster is the best protection.

How Do You Test for Omicron?

The WHO says there is clear evidence the PCR test can detect infection caused by the Omicron variant. Rapid antigen tests also detect most infections caused by Omicron, although sensitivity is decreased.  If you need a rapid result, a rapid test is still viable. Health authorities in the US, UK, and Singapore are still using rapid antigen tests to detect and monitor COVID infection. However, if time allows, a PCR is the gold standard of COVID testing. Also, if you get a negative result on a rapid test, but are feeling unwell, opt for a PCR test to confirm.

Recently, South African health authorities identified a stealth version of Omicron which can evade most PCR tests. It will still be detected as coronavirus, but it lacks one of the genetic markers that identify it as Omicron. It has been found in only seven patients so far.  South African researchers are uncertain whether this version of Omicron has spread beyond their borders. The so-called stealth version could leave scientists dependent on genomic testing, slowing down our ability to track the variant’s spread. 

International Travel Restrictions and Border Closures

Rules for travel are in constant flux ahead of the busy holiday season.  Japan, Israel, and Morocco have closed their borders, while Australia delayed its planned reopening.  Popular holiday destinations such as the United States, Britain, and the EU remain open but with new restrictions. 

United States:  Travelers require proof of a negative test 24-hours before travel, even if fully vaccinated.  The shortened time-frame has pushed many people’s travel plans into disarray as a delayed flight could push them beyond the 24-hour window.  Restrictions apply to both tourists and US citizens.

Britain:  Britain has added several countries to its red-list, including Nigeria, after 27 Omicron cases were linked to travel there.  Travelers from eligible countries require testing within 48-hours of arrival.  Travelers must self-isolate while awaiting results.

EU: Requirements vary by nation, with most countries imposing either a ban or quarantine on unvaccinated travelers.  Austria has closed its borders to all non-essential travel after going into lockdown from Nov 12- Dec 22. The Netherlands has enacted a partial lockdown.  The countries of Germany, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have locked down unvaccinated citizens. 

The map below shows countries that have imposed travel bans. It will be updated as more information becomes available.