Omicron, also known as the B.1.1.529 strain, was first identified in mid-November 2021. The World Health Organization rapidly classified Omicron as a variant of concern due to the large number of mutations it contains, with at least 30 located in the spike protein.
The Omicron variant has spread worldwide rapidly and is now the major variant in many countries. Omicron is much more transmissible than previous variants of the COVID-19 virus, including Delta. However, as the Omicron variant is so new, more data is needed to understand how Omicron has spread so rapidly across the world.
It is important to remember that Omicron was only declared a Variant of Concern at the end of November 2021. The rapid emergence of Omicron will require yet another change in the way New Zealand manages COVID-19.
New Zealand has a very effective system in place for identifying new variants. The ongoing emergence of new variants such as Omicron underline why it is so important that we continue to perform whole genome sequencing on cases from overseas and those not linked to a cluster in New Zealand.
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Although Omicron is a very new variant, there is already much that we have learned about this variant. Most of this information has come from overseas, so it is important to understand that all countries are different, so the information needs to be carefully analysed to see how it will apply to New Zealand.
Omicron is more transmissible – case numbers may double every 2 to 4 days
People who are fully vaccinated have less protection against transmission of Omicron than for Delta.
Protection against infection with either Delta or Omicron decreases over time. A booster dose at 3 months after the end of the first course will improve protection against Omicron, particularly for protection against severe disease, such as hospitalisation.
Omicron probably causes similar symptoms to other variants, such as Delta. However, in a country that has most people vaccinated, many people may not have any symptoms at all, but still be able to pass on the virus to other people.
Omicron does not appear to result in as many people being hospitalised. However, because Omicron can cause so many infections over a short period of time the number of people going to hospital each week has risen steadily in many countries.
Omicron can still cause severe illness and even death, especially in people who are at risk of severe outcomes, but a smaller proportion of people who are infected with Omicron need to go to hospital compared to people infected with Delta.
Please also see the latest information about Omicron in our Variants Update on the COVID-19: Science news page.
Globally, and here in New Zealand, it is so important to stamp out any community outbreaks as quickly as possible and to ensure very high rates of vaccination. The government has announced that an attempt will be made to stamp out Omicron when it starts to infect people in the community. This will provide important time to get as many people vaccinated and make the changes that are necessary to deal with Omicron.
The same measures which kept us safe against Delta are effective against Omicron.