Ask the Pharmacist

Q. I heard there is a new COVID-19 variant called Omicron. What can you tell me about it?

A. By now, most of you have heard that a new variant of concern has announced its presence in Canada and many other parts of the world. As mentioned in previous articles, all viruses mutate which bring forth variants, of which not all are causes for concern.

During this pandemic, there have been several variants, but the only variant of concern (VOC) thus far has been Delta. There are other variants being monitored (VBM) such as alpha, beta, gamma, epsilon, eta, iota, kappa, 1.617.3, mu and zeta but the mutations on these do not appear, at least as of yet, to pose an increased risk to our health.

It is not surprising that the latest variant to rear its head has been given the name of another Greek letter, Omicron, which is the 15th letter of their alphabet. Omicron is also known as B.1.1.529 and was declared a VOC by the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 26th. Omicron was first discovered by scientists in Botswana and South Africa but that by no means suggests that it originated there. It is still unknown where Omicron actually began and for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t really matter. What does is that it has definitely found its way to other continents, including ours. Much has yet to be learned about Omicron but early evidence is indicating that the usual patterns of viral mutations is holding true.

As such, this is what we can expect from Omicron;

  • Omicron may be significantly more contagious than the other known VOC, Delta, which we learned is significantly more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus originally discovered in Wuhan
  • Continued mutations of a virus can lead to existing vaccines and treatments being less effective against it. This might be true when it comes to Omicron but more studies are needed to know for sure
  • The current vaccines may help to reduce severe infections, hospitalization and/or death
  • Fully vaccinated and previously infected individuals may still contract Omicron and may still infect others whether they have symptoms or not
  • Masks and physical distancing continue to be very effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and all its variants.

Many of us look forward to the day when we may ditch the mask in public spaces. With the relaxing of some of the pandemic measures along with the colder weather forcing people to gather indoors, we are noticing an uptick in cough and colds this season already.

Recall that last season our typical viruses such as the common cold and influenza were nearly non-existent due to the strict measures that were put into place. Nobody wishes to endure another winter like that to avoid getting the common cold, influenza or COVID-19 so it is important that we continue to be smart in our decisions with the holidays around the corner.

First and foremost, get vaccinated! Many of you have already bared your arm for a dose or two. Some may be looking to get their third dose which is an excellent idea providing that at least six months has passed (or 168 days the Ontario Ministry of Health only counts 28 days per month) since your second dose. Effective Monday December 13th, all individuals 50 years of age and older will join the people eligible to receive their third dose in Ontario.

There are still some people that have not received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. If you happen to be one of the unvaccinated people that might be reading this article, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? Though the experts are not completely sure how effective the vaccines will be against Omicron (although data released by Pfizer indicates that a 3 shot course of their vaccine is very effective at neutralizing this variant in laboratory tests), it is likely that they will be more useful than not and offer degree of some protection against it at the very least.

If time proves that our current vaccines are not up to this task, it is reassuring to remember that the mRNA vaccines are manufactured in such a way that they may be easily reformulated to offer protection against the latest variants in a very timely fashion.  According to the New York Times, the company producing Spikevax (Moderna), say they can have a reformulated vaccine ready by next March.

The second most important thing you can do for yourself and others is to continue wearing a mask in public spaces. Instead of getting complacent with them, we need to rethink the quality of our masks. Many of us now have a couple of masks hanging around, some of them of the cloth type that can be washed and re-worn. Though these trendy cloth masks (providing they are 3-ply and have a snug fit) work well at preventing the wearer from spreading infections to others, there is some concern that they do not provide enough protection to the wearer.  With the Omicron threat upon us, it might be best to rethink our mask game and to opt for a properly fitted surgical mask.

If you find yourself in a crowded indoor setting, it may be a better idea to switch to an N95 mask. These N95 masks are also known as respirators and offer the highest level of protection when it comes to masks. At the beginning of this pandemic, though N95 masks were suggested, they were also in short supply so they were being reserved for health care workers that were in direct contact with patients. Now, there appears to be more manufactures and this has led to an increase in our supply of the N95 masks so perhaps now is the time to go out and buy some before we congregate with others. This is even more crucial if you or someone you live with have a weakened immune system or have a medical condition that predisposes one to serious complications should they get sick with this coronavirus.

For those of you that were looking forward to Doug Fords illusions of reducing some pandemic measures mid-January and being rid of masks by the end of March, unfortunately Delta, Omicron and perhaps other letters of the Greek alphabet may yet have something to say about that. For more information on this or any other topic, contact your pharmacist.