FAQ: What we know and don’t know about the omicron COVID variant from Crains Detroit

November 29, 2021

By Dustin Walsh

While most of us were eating pumpkin pie and ignoring dad’s snoring from the couch, a new coronavirus variant was detected by scientists in South Africa.

The variant — B.1.1.529, colloquially named omicron — is spreading fear across the globe following the speedy identification and classification by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern.”

Omicron cases have already been identified in Israel, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and a handful of European countries.

There are far more questions than answers as the virus quickly makes it way across nations. Here’s what is known and a few open ended questions that should be answered in the coming days and weeks:


Aa – muh – kron. Our brains want to put an N in the middle. It’s not there.


The scientists in South Africa, where the virus was first detected, believe the variant is more easily transmissible. Omicron is likely going to outpace the delta variant in South Africa, said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection prevention at Henry Ford Health System. In the Gaunteng province of South Africa, which includes the country’s largest city of Johannesburg, researchers estimate omicron accounts for more than 90 percent of new cases.

“Omicron has more mutations than anything we’ve seen with COVID so far,” Cunningham said. “The spike protein, which is how the virus gets into human cells, attaches to a certain receptor and infects other cells.”

Omicron has 32 mutations in the spike protein where the highly-transmittable delta variant only had eight mutations.

While the number of mutations is not an exact indication of how dangerous the variant is, it does suggest that our immune system may find it harder to fight the new variant.


Early indications from South Africa seem to show the symptoms may be mild for the omicron variant. Doctors in the country are reporting extreme fatigue and short-term body aches and headaches related to the variant but not major symptoms that attack a patient’s lungs. However, the variant is far too new for concrete evidence that it’s less deadly than previous variants.

“We still don’t have a whole lot of data whether it’s going to cause more severe infection,” Cunningham said.

Dr. Teena Chopra, director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Detroit Medical Center and the director of the Center for Emerging and Infectious Diseases at Wayne State University, warns early evidence isn’t enough to say the variant isn’t as deadly.

“We still need to look at real world data on severity, because most of the cases in South Africa were among young people,” Chopra said. “We need to wait a few weeks for clinical data. I’m not yet comfortable saying it’s less dangerous.”

Chopra expects better data on the dangers of the variant to emerge from South Africa next week.

Cunningham, however, said the identified mutations appear to point to the variant being less susceptible to monoclonal antibody therapies, which have been critical in preventing serious illness in certain infected populations. The therapy, used in hospitals and clinics across the region and U.S., is shown to reduce hospitalizations in at-risk groups by as much as 70 percent.

Cunningham also urges universal mask wearing in public indoor spaces to protect from the current fourth surge and to slow the spread of the omicron variant.

Visit our Wayne Health Mobile Unit page to find a time and location near you to receive your COVID-19 vaccine.

Read, “FAQ: What we know and don’t know about the omicron COVID variant” from Crains Detroit

FAQ: What we know and don’t know about the omicron COVID variant from Crains Detroit
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