The recent discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has upended the outlook for a pandemic that already was expected to get worse over the winter.
But it will probably take weeks before scientists truly understand whether omicron — declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday, two days after South Africa announced its detection — will end up being as significant as the delta variant.
“It will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant,” the White House said in a statement Sunday after President Biden met with his COVID-19 response team.
The statement said that Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, “continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID.” Fauci also reiterated that booster shots for fully vaccinated individuals provide the strongest available protection from COVID.
Not all variants of concern end up becoming a big deal.
Two — beta, first identified in South Africa, and gamma, first identified in Brazil — never became as consequential globally as delta has become.
Still, there are many reasons why officials are expressing deep concern about omicron even as they acknowledge there is still a lot unknown and it’s possible this variant may peter out.
The omicron variant has not yet been detected in California or the U.S., although experts say they fully expect it. Confirmed cases already have been reported in the Canadian province of Ontario.
Here’s what we know, as well as questions that remain unanswered:
Q. Is omicron more transmissible than other variants?