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Does Omicron feel like 2020? Here’s why it shouldn’t

Passengers make their way through Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport Monday Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organization urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concern over the new omicron variant.Jerome Delay/Associated Press

A new SARS-CoV-2 virus variant is rattling the globe, prompting travel bans and some economic unrest as scientists race to figure out how dangerous the new strain, called Omicron, could be.

The World Health Organization on Monday warned of “very high” risk from Omicron as a slew of questions about its transmissibility and severity remain shrouded in mystery. Health experts are cautioning against any panic until the scientific community learns more about those issues, as well as whether the variant evades the immune response from existing vaccines or a previous COVID-19 infection.

Given all the uncertainty, it may feel like the spring of 2020 all over again. (Remember the first time you heard the words “social distancing”?)

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But there are several reasons why the pandemic landscape today is very different. The biggest thing is the existence of vaccines that have been effective against severe cases so far. But the psychology is also different this time around: People have been through COVID surges before, from doctors to public health officials to employers, and the general public (most of them, anyway) knows how to wear a mask.

Here’s a rundown of what has changed.

COVID-19 vaccines

This time around, people have access to several COVID-19 vaccines, which have been shown to offer protection against severe cases of the disease. Over the summer, the three US vaccine manufactures — Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Moderna — tested the shots against prior variant strains and found encouraging data about their ability to protect people.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said on Monday that people “should not be freaking out” over Omicron, and he urged the country to do “the things we know work,” which include getting vaccinated or getting a booster shot.

COVID-19 protocols

Public health officials know more about how to contain the spread of the virus than they did last year. Even if Omicron is more transmissible than other strains of the COVID-19 virus, local governments should be better equipped to respond in a way that might not require lockdowns or stay-at-home orders.

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“If people are vaccinated and wearing their mask, there is no need for a lockdown,” said President Joe Biden during a press conference on Monday.

Omicron-specific vaccines

Still, there is concern that the Omicron variant, which contains more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, could escape the immune protection offered by the current vaccines, as well as prior infection. Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel said during CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he anticipates “there will be a loss of vaccine efficacy to prevent disease.”

All three US vaccine manufacturers — Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Moderna — said that they will test how well their vaccines protect against the variant, but it could be a few weeks before they have that data in hand.

In the meantime, some drugmakers are accelerating the development of Omicron-specific vaccine candidates. It’s unclear whether tweaked vaccines are needed, but both Pfizer and Moderna have said they could make another version by early next year. Johnson & Johnson said it is also pursuing a potential vaccine targeting Omicron.

That’s a much swifter timeline than the effort to get the first COVID-19 vaccines authorized last year. The US Food and Drug Administration has indicated that it will not require booster doses to go through large clinical trails, in an effort to speed up their development and ability to target emerging variants.

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Oral pills

A promising COVID-19 treatment pill from Pfizer may be effective against the Omicron variant, according to chief executive Albert Bourla.

”The good news when it comes to our treatment, it was designed with that in mind, it was designed with the fact that most mutations are coming in the spikes,” Bourla told CNBC on Monday. “So that gives me very high level of confidence that the treatment will not be affected.”

This image provided by Pfizer shows its COVID-19 pill. thomas hansmann.fotograf/Associated Press

The pill, called Paxloid, has not yet been authorized by the FDA for emergency use. Preliminary clinical trials have shown it can reduce the chances of hospitalization and death by nearly 90 percent when taken near the onset of symptoms.

Recent studies on the competing COVID-19 pill from Merck show that the treatment may not work as well as previously anticipated. It has just a 30 percent chance of warding off mild to moderate disease. The company has not released information about its effectiveness against the Omicron variant.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8. Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.