Omicron: What do mutations mean for the future of COVID-19, vaccines and spread of virus

Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma and now Omicron.

Different variants of COVID-19 have been identified over the last two years by the World Health Organization, but could Omicron be the last?

>> Ohio sees highest 24-hour COVID-19 case count of entire pandemic

“At some point this virus might mutate to a form that is no longer severe,” said Dr. Jeffrey Weinstein, Patient Safety Officer with Kettering Health Network. “This strain, Omicron, may not be that one. It’s really looking more and more like it is not the one”

Weinstein said viruses can work in two ways when they become mutated.

“You can see a virus mutate and become more severe and you can see a virus mutate and lose what we call pathogenicity, its ability to cause disease,” Weinstein said.

Omicron became a variant of concern for the World Health Organization in late November, when it was first identified in South Africa. In a matter of weeks, Omicron has spread quickly.

“I suspect that in our region many, if not most of our cases, are Omicron by now,” Weinstein said.

>> Coronavirus: Biden lays out plan to curb omicron surge, focuses on vaccinations

A variant of concern is identified by the WHO when it shows an increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation or a decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.

But many are asking if Omicron is a more severe version of COVID-19 than the variants that came before?

“We certainly are seeing hospitalizations from Omicron, but we see that it looks like a smaller percentage of the people who get infected,” Weinstein said. “It’s a smaller percentage, but if that totally number is much, much higher you’re going to end up with the result of more people in the hospital rather than fewer.”

When Delta was first detected it was determined that it was 50 percent more contagious than the original version of COVID-19, Weinstein said Omicron appears to be significantly more contagious than Delta.

“When you see it get into a community it takes over very fast,” Weinstein said.

Health experts in South Africa have reported that cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 there tended to be quite mild, Weinstein said. He said when a virus moves to another part of the world their can be a lot of variability with it, meaning it impacts different demographics and people with different comorbidities.

Initial data shows the current vaccines appear to be effective against the virus, but Weinstein said getting a booster may increase your ability to fight off the virus if you get it.

“A booster looks to give you pretty good protection,” Weinstein said. “You are much, much less likely to get very sick and end up in a hospital or die from COVID than if you were not vaccinated or boosted.”