What We Know (And Don't Know) About The Omicron Variant : Consider This from NPR The World Health Organization is warning that the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which was first detected in South Africa, has a "very high" global risk because of the possibility that it spreads more easily and might resist vaccines and immunity in people who were infected with previous strains.

On Monday, President Joe Biden said this this variant is a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic." He urged Americans to get fully vaccinated and get a booster dose if they qualify.

WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris explains what more there is to learn about the severity and transmission of this new variant.

And Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discusses why vaccine hesitation on a global scale could make this next phase of the pandemic more dangerous.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

What We Know (And Don't Know) About The Omicron Variant

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's start with some of the things we know about the new COVID variant, omicron, which was first reported to the World Health Organization five days ago.

BILL HANAGE: The South African authorities reported that they were seeing a large number of cases of a variant with a very large number of mutations, way beyond what you would expect.

CORNISH: This is Bill Hanage. He's an associate professor of epidemiology. He's at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

HANAGE: They had reason to think, from a particular set of test results, that this had not spread just in one small location, but which was in several regions around the country.

CORNISH: And they were right, because shortly after that, we heard about confirmed cases in places like Hong Kong and Belgium.

HANAGE: And basically, things have been moving very quickly since then, and we're still scrambling trying to figure out exactly what sort of beast we're dealing with.

CORNISH: Those mutations, Hanage mentioned, they're the reason this particular variant is raising alarm bells. Omicron has more mutations than any strain detected before it, which means it could be the most contagious variant yet.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: It just kind of exploded.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking to NBC.

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FAUCI: When you look in South Africa, you were having a low level of infection. And then all of a sudden, there was this big spike. And when the South Africans looked at it, they said, oh, my goodness. This is a different virus than we've been dealing with.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.

CORNISH: President Biden acknowledged the growing fear in an address on Monday.

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BIDEN: And we have more tools today to fight the variant than we've ever had before.

CORNISH: He said that while restrictions imposed on travelers from several southern African nations would slow the spread of the omicron variant, they can't completely prevent it, and inevitably, cases may be popping up in the U.S.

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BIDEN: The best protection - I know you're tired of hearing me me say this - the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there, the ones we've been dealing with already, is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot.

CORNISH: So far, the vaccines have a great track record of curbing spread and, most importantly, keeping people out of the hospital. But with so many unknowns, medical experts say all of the precautions we've gotten familiar with should remain, well, familiar. Dr. David Rubin of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia told NPR, this is a good time for everyone to make sure they don't leave home without a facemask, especially coming off of a holiday week.

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DAVID RUBIN: So I do think Thanksgiving is the holiday that often leads to the greatest acceleration because people just go right back to work and go back to school the next week. So I expect some increases in substantial transmission in the weeks ahead.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - we're used to this by now - a new contagious variant, a new letter of the Greek alphabet while just about everything else still remains unknown. We'll look at what we can expect from the spread of omicron.

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CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Monday, November 29.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. When you think about the last thing you'd want to hear during the holiday travel season, a new, highly contagious variant of the coronavirus is probably high on the list. But not all of them shake out the way we've expected them to.

HANAGE: Do you remember beta?

CORNISH: Bill Hanage again with Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

HANAGE: Beta was the variant that everybody was worried about before because it was the one that was best able to sidestep neutralizing immunity or neutralizing antibodies. However, beta didn't really go anywhere.

CORNISH: And now we have a new variant of concern, which is the official designation at the World Health Organization has given omicron.

HANAGE: This is only the most recent thing, and we're only starting to learn how transmissible it is. It looks like the answer is quite transmissible, but exactly how transmissible we don't know yet.

CORNISH: Along with not knowing exactly how transmissible omicron is and how serious the disease it causes may be, Hanage says we also don't have a clear understanding of how it will spread among different groups of people - older age groups, the unvaccinated and those who are vaccinated but don't yet have their booster.

HANAGE: And that uncertainty is something which a lot of people find hard to deal with. But unfortunately, it's part of living through a pandemic.

CORNISH: Another key here is acknowledging that we are very much still living through it. Hanage says there's not going to be an obvious moment to declare the pandemic over.

HANAGE: You don't get a sort of 21-gun salute to say, oh, it's over. Instead, it's a long, drawn-out process of fighting whatever the virus throws at us next.

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CORNISH: Getting answers to those outlying questions, it's going to take time and cooperation.

MARGARET HARRIS: We want countries to look at who's coming into hospital, to look at what particular strain they've got and whether or not they were vaccinated so we can understand exactly whether this particular strain is causing those problems.

CORNISH: Dr. Margaret Harris is a public health doctor and a spokesperson for the World Health Organization. She spoke with NPR's Noel King about the next steps in understanding this variant.

HARRIS: Some of the reports we've got about symptoms are not clear because some of the clusters were in young, healthy adults, you know, students who are people who, traditionally with this virus, tend to have the milder illness. So we just don't have enough - a full enough picture to make that kind of determination yet.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: What else do you want to know? What questions are top of mind for you?

HARRIS: The other big question, of course, is, how does it behave with the vaccines? You do the tests in the laboratory to understand whether or not the plasma from people who are vaccinated can actually stop the virus, but the other big question is, what's happening in the real world? - because what happens in the lab isn't the complete picture. You've got - your immune system's very complex. And we want to know whether people who are fully vaccinated are ending up in a hospital with this particular strain of the virus. The vaccines were designed, basically, to keep people out of hospital. And they've stood up, and they've done that very well. So we really need to know whether this particular version is going to change that picture.

KING: Are travel bans actually effective?

HARRIS: So there's limited evidence that if you have a very short period while you're getting everything ready, that can help you for a little while. It basically gives you breathing space. We're not keen on travel bans, as you know, because of the great disruption. And in this instance, you can understand how southern Africa - you know, South Africans should get a medal for the quality of their science and for their openness. And they're feeling like they're being punished. So you can understand why travel bans can be - have very dire consequences. But they can give you time. But our real message to every country is, make the most of that time. Build up your hospital capacity. Build up your tracking and tracing. Build up your surveillance. Prepare.

KING: Prepare - South Africa has a vaccination rate of only about 24%, so 1 in 4 people who are eligible. Are low vaccination rates contributing to the development of new variants?

HARRIS: This is what we have been concerned about all along. And this is why we said right from the beginning, vaccinate the highest-risk groups, the people in whom the virus is going to circulate a lot - because they get a lot sicker. Vaccinate those people first all around the world so that you really limit the space for the virus to copy itself. So, you know, we were taken as just wanting to be the good guys (laughter). In fact, it's the most effective and useful, self-interested thing you can do.

KING: What else could be done to boost vaccination rates across the world?

HARRIS: A great deal - many of the resource-rich countries have talked about sharing vaccines, but they haven't really fulfilled those promises - also, waiving intellectual property, also technology transfer so that people can make the vaccines in the other parts of the world where they really need them.

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CORNISH: Dr. Margaret Harris with the World Health Organization.

Now, Dr. Harris spoke to the relatively low vaccination rate in South Africa and what can be done to make sure more people around the world have access to a vaccine. But access is only part of the problem.

FRANCIS COLLINS: When I talked to the folks in South Africa about this, they say at the present time, their problem is not access to vaccines. They have vaccines.

CORNISH: Now, that's Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

COLLINS: They have the same problem we seem to have with people being hesitant to take them. And that is a terrible tragedy for our country and for theirs as well.

CORNISH: I spoke with Collins about how vaccine access and hesitancy is making this new threat more challenging.

Could the U.S. and other developed nations done more to get vaccines to parts of the world that had less access? And I ask this because the idea of vaccinations was to prevent the kinds of mutations that could lead to more dangerous variants.

COLLINS: That's absolutely right. And we in the U.S. have done more than any other country to try to achieve that. We've already sent out more than 250 million doses and committed to more than a billion more, more than any other country. And we do need to do that just for - in self-interest, not to mention the fact that we are fortunate to have resources. And we should be reaching out to all of our brothers and sisters all over the world.

CORNISH: In the U.S., COVID cases are up around 30%, at least compared to a month ago. I know you've been out promoting boosters. You've - as you've been doing here, singing the praises of vaccines and also vaccine mandates, but to really keep cases under control this holiday season and through the winter, where does the national strategy need to head from here?

COLLINS: Well, we need to do everything possible, Audie, to convince people who are still on the fence to roll up their sleeves if they haven't yet gotten immunized. And, of course, mandates is one way that we're accomplishing that, although I think most of us wish we didn't have to do mandates when the evidence is so compelling. And booster-wise, again, getting messages like this in front of people - we're working, though, against a terrible onslaught of misinformation and, frankly, disinformation that's being spread by people with other agendas, which causes people to be confused and fearful in a situation where the data is actually really clear about what you should do. These vaccines are safe and effective, and the boosters really work.

CORNISH: What's your sense of what it would take to get to an endemic phase of this pandemic - right? - where the virus is still circulating but not disrupting everyday life?

COLLINS: Yeah, we need to see cases, hospitalizations and deaths drop way down from where they are right now. We're still losing a thousand people a day in the United States. That would mean getting immunization levels very much higher than they are and also practicing those other simple things in terms of mitigation, like mask wearing indoors when you're around other unvaccinated people. We have, of course, gotten to the point where a lot of people are tired of hearing all that, but the virus is not tired of us. And so we have to double down on that and keep these messages coming. We're all in this together.

CORNISH: Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

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CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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