COVID-19: About the Omicron variant

Omicron, also known as the B.1.1.529 strain, was first identified in mid-November 2021. The World Health Organization rapidly classified Omicron as a variant of concern due to the large number of mutations it contains, with at least 30 located in the spike protein.

Last updated: 23 January 2022

The Omicron variant has spread worldwide rapidly and is now the major variant in many countries. Omicron is much more transmissible than previous variants of the COVID-19 virus, including Delta. However, as the Omicron variant is so new, more data is needed to understand how Omicron has spread so rapidly across the world.

It is important to remember that Omicron was only declared a Variant of Concern at the end of November 2021. The rapid emergence of Omicron will require yet another change in the way New Zealand manages COVID-19. 

New Zealand has a very effective system in place for identifying new variants. The ongoing emergence of new variants such as Omicron underline why it is so important that we continue to perform whole genome sequencing on cases from overseas and those not linked to a cluster in New Zealand. 

What New Zealanders can do now:

  • if you are eligible to have your COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, please make a booking here. 5–11 year olds are also now able to receive the pediatric Pfizer vaccine
  • prepare a kit for your home and make a plan if you or someone in your household becomes a positive COVID-19 case. Prepare and stay safe
  • continue to follow good hygiene practices and wherever you go: Mask, Scan and Pass
  • if travelling around the country over summer, have a plan in place if you become unwell or test positive. See advice here.

How Omicron is different from earlier variants

Although Omicron is a very new variant, there is already much that we have learned about this variant. Most of this information has come from overseas, so it is important to understand that all countries are different, so the information needs to be carefully analysed to see how it will apply to New Zealand.

Infectiousness

  • Omicron is more transmissible – case numbers may double every 2 to 4 days

Vaccines

  • People who are fully vaccinated have less protection against transmission of Omicron than for Delta.
  • Protection against infection with either Delta or Omicron decreases over time. A booster dose at 4 months after the end of the first course will improve protection against Omicron, particularly for protection against severe disease, such as hospitalisation.

Symptoms

  • Omicron probably causes similar symptoms to other variants, such as Delta. However, in a country that has most people vaccinated, many people may not have any symptoms at all, but still be able to pass on the virus to other people.

Severity

  • Omicron does not appear to result in as many people being hospitalised. However, because Omicron can cause so many infections over a short period of time the number of people going to hospital each week has risen steadily in many countries.
  • Omicron can still cause severe illness and even death, especially in people who are at risk of severe outcomes, but a smaller proportion of people who are infected with Omicron need to go to hospital compared to people infected with Delta.

Please also see the latest information about Omicron in our Variants Update on the COVID-19: Science news page.

How we can protect ourselves: vaccine effectiveness and health measures

Globally, and here in New Zealand, it is so important to stamp out any community outbreaks as quickly as possible and to ensure very high rates of vaccination. The government has announced that an attempt will be made to stamp out Omicron when it starts to infect people in the community. This will provide important time to get as many people vaccinated and make the changes that are necessary to deal with Omicron.

The same measures which kept us safe against Delta are effective against Omicron.

Vaccination and boosters help to reduce transmission of the virus. Remember, that if you don’t get the virus, you can’t give it to someone else. Taking other precautions also remains important to continue to protect our communities against Omicron. As well as vaccination, early detection of cases and swift contact tracing, and isolation of cases and contacts, is critical.

It will also be important to continue to protect ourselves and our whānau and stop the transmission of the disease by following health habits such as:

  • Keep indoor rooms well ventilated (eg, by opening windows and doors) where possible
  • Wearing masks and face coverings is one way of keeping yourself safe and protecting others from COVID-19, especially when physical distancing is not possible. Wear masks in confined or crowded environments.
  • Physical distancing of 2m where possible
  • If you feel unwell or show any symptoms, stay home. Call Healthline and get a COVID-19 test
  • Use your My Vaccine Pass to scan into venues and events. MVP is a record of your COVID vaccination status
  • Keep a record of where you’ve been or scan in wherever you go using the COVID Tracer app and turn Bluetooth on your phone so you can be contacted if you have been near a case.
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