Omicron variant: What we know, what we don’t, and why not to panic (yet)

On Thanksgiving, my Twitter feed was dominated not by food photos, but by news of a novel coronavirus variant identified in South Africa earlier this week. While the variant—now called Omicron, or B.1.1.529—likely didn’t originate in South Africa, data from the country’s comprehensive surveillance system provided enough evidence to suggest that this variant could be more contagious than Delta, as well as potentially more able to evade human immune systems.

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Unpacking Delta AY.4.2: Are we prepared for the next variant?

Recently, a new offshoot of the Delta variant has been gaining ground in the U.K. It’s called AY.4.2, and it appears to be slightly more transmissible than Delta itself. While experts say this variant doesn’t differ enough from Delta to pose a serious concern, I think it’s worth exploring what we know about it so far—and what this means for the future of coronavirus mutation.

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Breakthrough cases: What we know right now

While epidemiologists may consider any new outbreak a possible source of new variants, one key way to monitor the virus/variant race is by analyzing breakthrough cases—those infections that occur after someone has been fully vaccinated. Here’s how states and the CDC are tracking these cases now, and what we know about vaccine protection against the variants.

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CDC stepped up sequencing, but the data haven’t kept pace

The CDC has stepped up its sequencing efforts in a big way over the past few months, going from 3,000 a week in early January to 10,000 a week by the end of March. But data on the results of these efforts are scarce and uneven, with some states doing far more sequencing than others. And the CDC itself publishes data with gaping holes and lags that make the numbers difficult to interpret.

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Some optimistic vaccine news but variants still pose a major threat

Nobody who got any of the vaccine candidates was hospitalized or died from COVID-19. That’s huge, especially as variants continue to spread across the U.S. J&J’s numbers are especially promising when it comes to variant strains. Moderna and Pfizer released their results before the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) or B.1.351. (S.A.) variants reached their current notoriety, which makes J&J’s overall efficacy numbers look worse by comparison. But the fact that no one who got the J&J vaccine was hospitalized no matter which variant they were infected with is a cause for optimism.

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