Health Focus: Understanding Omicron, Booster Vaccines and Types of Tests

There are lots of questions circulating on the internet right now as the omicron variant continues to spread. Questions like, "How bad is omicron?" or "How does the booster shot help," and "why should I get a booster shot even if I caught COVID?" 

To help make sense of the news right now we've compiled a little health focus blog post from experts below: 

Understanding Omicron

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2. Most people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms, but some people can become severely ill. Omicron is a variant of COVID-19. It was designated a variant of concern on the 26th of November, 2021 by the World Health Organization. 

How bad is Omicron?

Risk related to Omicron, according to the World Health Organization, is high. This is due to a number of reasons:

1) The global risk of contracting COVID-19 overall is still high

2) The current data that we have on Omicron shows that it has higher growth than the Delta variant, meaning that it spreads more rapidly within communities;

3) Rapid increases in cases of Omicron will mean more hospitalizations, which will pose higher demands on hospital and health care systems. Higher demands on hospital and health care systems is bad, not just because it overwhelms staff but also because it can mean no beds are available for patients. 

Right now because transmission for the virus appears to be so high, health authorities across Canada are recommending safe practices and many locations have have put into place restrictions to help prevent spread.

How is Omicron different from past cases?

The Omicron variant has many more mutations than the other variants researchers have found. The mutations that experts are seeing are on what is called the "spike protein." This part of the virus is what attaches to cells and is related to entry of the virus and how fast a virus can spread.  

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Omicron likely spreads more easily than the original COVID-19 virus. It also appears to be more infectious than the past Delta variant. 

Current knowledge about Omicron 

The Omicron variant is still new, with cases developing. Experts are still learning what we need to know about this new variant and how it will develop. Right now researchers are aware that the virus has a high transmission and that it's better at other variants at evading certain antibodies, which are commonly used in treatments, and the immunity provided by vaccinations.

Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant. However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur.

According to experts at Waterloo University, while we may not know all the answers yet we can be sure that more variants will arise. This is because mutations of the virus are constantly occurring. It is not possible to know what a new variant will look like, just as we didn't expect Omicron after the Delta variant.

Booster Vaccines

What is a booster shot? How does it work?

Very simply, a booster shot help increase levels of immunity after the original shot's protection has naturally waned.

A booster shot works by making the body believe that it has an encounter with the virus, so immune responses kick into gear to protect cells. Immune responses include having anti-body cells multiply and improve the cells' ability to respond faster and stronger to subsequent exposures, even if the numbers decrease again. 

What kind of booster shot can I get?

In Canada right now you have two options for a booster shot: 

Health Canada has authorized Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine (also known as Spikevax) and Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine (Comirnaty) for booster-shot use in people 18 or older. 

Who is eligible?

This question depends on where you live. Whether or not you can receive a booster shot right now is based on what province you live in and their boost shot / vaccination roll out plan. 

Do COVID-19 boosters protect against the omicron variant?

It is still too early to tell but early lab results suggest that existing vaccines could be less effective against the fast-spreading coronavirus variant but that boosters should improve immunity.

Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness.

Types of COVID-19 Tests

COVID-19 tests work by detecting either SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, or the antibodies your body makes after getting COVID-19 or after getting vaccinated. 

Tests for SARS-CoV-2 tell you if you have an infection at the time of the test. This type of test is called a “viral” test because it looks for viral infection. Tests for antibodies, i.e. a viral test, tells you if you are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

The two major types of tests used to diagnose infection with SARS-CoV-2 right now are PCR tests and rapid antigen tests.

A rapid antigen test can be taken by individuals with or without COVID-19 symptoms. The test involves collecting nose and throat secretions via a nasopharyngeal swab and then examining them for protein fragments specific to the COVID-19 virus. The test usually takes 15-20 minutes and are generally considered less accurate than PCR tests. 

A PCR test is similar to rapid tests in that you can do the test via nasopharyngeal swabs but the analysis method is different. PCR tests are still mostly done at hospitals and other testing facilities rather than at home, and are far more sensitive than antigen tests. These tests are more expensive than a rapid test and take longer to get results but are also considered more accurate. 

Sources of information/reading: 

World Health Organization's Technical Paper on Omicron SARS-CoV-2 Variant

World Health Organization Podcast Episode on Omicron 

UC Davis Medical Center 

University of Waterloo Experts Q&A

Nature News on Omicron variant 

Nature News on Omicron variant and vaccinations 

University of British Columbia experts talk about study on Omicron 

John Hopkins Medicine experts

PhysicanOne Urgent Care

McGill University News about COVID rapid tests

University of Chicago news Q&W with infectious disease expert