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  • With the rise of the Omicron variant, scientists say it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and then get a booster shot.
  • Higher vaccination rates also reduce opportunities for the novel coronavirus to spread and evolve into new, potentially worrisome variants.
  • The Omicron variant has many more mutations than other forms of the coronavirus, but it’s unclear whether it’s more virulent or infectious than previous variants.

The emergence of the Omicron variant is a reminder of just how unpredictable and resilient the novel coronavirus can be.

Variants like Omicron typically pop up in areas where the virus is heavily circulating, which is predominantly in areas with low vaccination rates.

Vaccination not only provides protection against serious outcomes like hospitalization and death, even with variants, but as more people get vaccinated, there’s less chance for the coronavirus to spread and evolve into potentially threatening variants.

Though it’s still unclear whether Omicron is, to any degree, more transmissible or virulent, scientists agree that the best way to stay protected against any virus variant is vaccination.

“Now is the time to remind everyone who is not vaccinated to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist who is a principal investor of the Pfizer vaccine clinical trials at Yale School of Medicine.

Early reports from South Africa have shown that infections are occurring in people who’ve previously had COVID-19, said Ogbuagu.

Natural infection provides robust immunity, but evidence has previously shown that vaccinated people, in general, have stronger protection against infection than people who have immunity from a past infection.

“We do know that the vaccines provide much more durable protection against the virus,” Ogbuagu said.

In addition, as vaccination rates increase, the virus has fewer opportunities to spread and mutate into new variants.

“Be it because of the Delta variant or future variants, vaccines remain the most effective preventative strategy we have,” said Dr. Jorge Salinas, a hospital epidemiologist and an assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Stanford.

Salinas thinks we may see some decrease in effectiveness against symptomatic infection, but he suspects the current COVID-19 vaccines will continue to provide strong protection against severe disease and death, even when put to the test against Omicron.

“I think the question here might not be if it evades immune response. I think the question might be, to what degree?” Ogbuagu said.

We need much more evidence to determine whether the vaccines will take a minor hit, and whether Omicron could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatments.

Scientists are also monitoring the severity of reinfections and breakthrough infections.

“Even if it evades immune response, but clinically it’s a mild form of disease, then there should be a little less concern because some of those worse clinical outcomes — like hospitalization and death — may not occur,” Ogbuagu said.

According to Ogbuagu, these tests, which are conducted in a laboratory, are already underway. We should have a clearer idea of how the vaccines hold up against Omicron within a few weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its booster guidance on Nov. 29, strengthening recommendations for all vaccinated adults to get a booster shot at least 6 months after their second dose of a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine or 2 months after the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

With the Delta variant, we learned that immunity from vaccination wanes over time, but that a booster dose — which was designed to target the original variant — quickly restores protection against variants like Beta and Delta.

“We found better immune responses against those variants with a booster even if it wasn’t specifically targeting those variants,” Ogbuagu said.

Ogbuagu suspects the same could be true with Omicron.

That said, the new variant does have a unique cluster of mutations, so tests will need to be conducted to determine whether that’s the case.

The mRNA vaccines — Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — are easy to tweak. Vaccine manufacturers are already evaluating Omicron-specific vaccines.

As the coronavirus evolves and new variants emerge, we will likely, at some point, need updated shots, said Salinas.

Animal and laboratory studies can quickly demonstrate whether the variant-specific shots can neutralize the variant.

Human clinical studies, however, are more complicated and take several months.

Ogbuagu said we’ll get a lot of clues about the need for tailored shots in the next several weeks as researchers study the outbreaks in South Africa and other areas where Omicron is circulating.

He’d like to see what percentage of cases are occurring in people who’ve been fully vaccinated, how far out from vaccination their infection was, and what kind of disease severity they experienced.

“I think it’s always the data in humans that we should put the greatest importance on — and that will take time,” Ogbuagu said.

In the meantime, vaccination remains our best line of defense against infection.

With the potential threat of the Omicron variant, scientists are strengthening their recommendations for vaccination and booster shots.

The best way to prevent severe illness and death, even with variants, is to get vaccinated.

Higher vaccination rates also reduce opportunities for the novel coronavirus to spread and evolve into new, potentially worrisome variants.