Today's omicron update: Now in 25 states, what are its symptoms, what we still don't know – CNET

Pfizer says two doses of its vaccine may not offer enough protection from the omicron variant. Stay on top of the latest guidance here.
The omicron variant is raising global concern.
Now detected in 25 states, the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus continues to spread across the US, as scientists begin to sketch a picture of how easily the mutated virus can spread from person to person and evade protection from vaccines.
Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Friday said nearly 80% of the confirmed omicron cases in the US are fully vaccinated, with about a third also having received a booster. Over a third had been previously infected with the virus.
In the US, President Joe Biden is doubling down on urging vaccines and booster shots until more information on the new variant becomes available. As a result, the US administered 12.5 million shots in the last week, according to Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. That’s the highest number of weekly shots since May. Seven million of those were booster shots, Zients said.
So far, the COVID-19 vaccines have proved to be highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death, with people who are unvaccinated being more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized if infected. Vaccine-makers are optimistic the current vaccines authorized for use in the US will provide a degree of protection against omicron, too.
Here are eight important things to know about omicron today. For more on COVID boosters, here’s a trick to easily get an appointment and a free ride. Here’s how you’ll soon get a COVID test kit for free and details on mixing and matching vaccines.
On Wednesday, BioNTech scientists said two doses of the vaccine it developed with Pfizer may not be enough to defend against the omicron variant and three doses — the first two shots and a booster — may be needed to restore protection.
“Individuals who have received two vaccines will most likely not have significant prevention from infection or any type of disease [from the new variant],” said Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s chief executive officer during the Wednesday briefing. Sahin said more information is needed to confirm its initial laboratory findings that indicate a third Pfizer vaccine dose is important to guard against the variant.
Last week, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said all COVID vaccines may have decreased protection against the variant. CNET reached out to Moderna for an update but didn’t immediately get a response.
Walensky on Friday said that of the 43 confirmed cases in the US, only one has had to be hospitalized, and there have been no deaths. Most report mild symptoms.
It could take weeks to know for certain how effective the current vaccines are against the omicron variant. But Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson say they are already gearing up to create a vaccine designed to combat omicron if needed.
Moderna said it could have vaccine candidates ready for trial in 60 to 90 days. Pfizer said it could have a new vaccine ready by March, pending regulator authorization. Johnson & Johnson said it’s working with scientists in South Africa and around the world to evaluate the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine against the omicron variant and has begun work on a new vaccine designed for omicron.
It could still be two or three weeks till we know more about how easily omicron can be passed between people and how resistant the mutated virus is against the current crop of vaccines, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the president, on Tuesday at a White House briefing said that early data also suggests omicron could be more infectious than the delta variant and is replacing delta as the dominant COVID strain in South Africa.
It surfaced in California and Minnesota. Now the variant has been detected in 25 states across the country, from Washington to Mississippi and Texas to Utah. The US and other countries were already bracing for an increased caseload as colder weather and holiday gatherings brought more people indoors together. Now, projections of a winter surge of the dominant delta variant join concerns about omicron’s spread.
Add to that increasing flu infections, and experts worry about a “twindemic,” of the two illnesses.
In Europe, omicron could become the most common COVID variant in months, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
“Mathematical modeling indicates that the Omicron VOC is expected to cause over half of all SARS-CoV-2 infections in the EU/EEA within the next few months” due to early understandings of the omicron variant’s high transmissibility between people, the body said in a Dec. 2 briefing (PDF). 
Scientists studying the omicron variant in South Africa, where it was first reported to the World Health Organization, have said it’s spreading more than twice as fast as the delta variant. But what isn’t yet known is whether the spread is hastened because the mutations make it easier to spread among people, if vaccines are less effective against this strain or for some other reason. The study cited by The New York Times has not yet been published or peer-reviewed.
COVID latches onto cells using a spike protein in its structure. Omicron has more mutations than the delta variant, which is considered at least twice as contagious as previous strains. While it isn’t clear yet if omicron is more or less contagious than delta, the presence of those mutations is one cause of concern. 
That may be one reason countries around the world have banned travel from some countries in southern Africa and increased travel restrictions that include a negative COVID test 24 hours before travel, regardless of vaccination status.
Drugmakers are exploring if the current vaccines are effective against the new variant.
Most PCR tests to identify the presence of COVID-19 in the body are free (COVID tests for international travel are the main exception). So it’s good news that the existing nasal swab test has been found to detect the omicron variant — a blood test or other procedure so far is unnecessary.
“Fortunately for us, the PCRs that we mostly use would pick up this very unusual variant that has a real large constellation of mutations,” Fauci said Nov. 29 in a press briefing.
On Dec. 2, Biden announced a plan to help protect the US against the omicron variant this winter. It includes:
For additional COVID guidance, here’s what to know about new travel restrictions, how to store your vaccine card on your phone and what to do if you lose your vaccine card.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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