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Omicron Variant: Dr. Mallika Marshall Explains What's Known And What's Not

BOSTON (CBS) - The newly discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing concern around the world, including here in Massachusetts, but there's still much to learn about it.

Here's what we know so far about it:

The pandemic is far from over, and like other coronavirus variants that have emerged, Omicron appeared in a region of the world largely unvaccinated, South Africa. This once again stresses the importance of getting the entire globe immunized in order to get the pandemic under control.

While there have been no Omicron cases identified here in the United States, it is undoubtedly already here. We need to step up testing and genetic sequencing to identify it and other variants that could emerge.

The Omicron variant has dozens of mutations in the spike protein which is the region of the virus targeted by the current vaccines.

Here's what we don't know:

We don't know whether this new variant is more transmissible, in other words, more easily spread, than the Delta variant. There is some evidence to suggest it is.

We don't know whether Omicron makes people sicker. There is some reassurance that it causes milder illness, especially among those who are vaccinated.

We also don't know whether these spike protein mutations will render the vaccines less effective. Scientists are optimistic that the vaccines will still work, at least to some degree. But vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer and Moderna, are already developing formulas specifically targeting the Omicron variant and say, if necessary, they could widely distribute a new vaccine within the next few months.

But it's going to take time, at least a couple of weeks to get a clearer picture of whether Omicron is more contagious, more dangerous, and more resistant to the vaccines.

What to do until more information is available:

In the meantime, the best way to protect yourself against Omicron, Delta, or other Covid variants is to get vaccinated. And if you're already vaccinated, get a booster.

And I would err on the side of caution by wearing an effective mask in indoor public spaces and whenever you're around others who may be unvaccinated.

Dr. Mallika Marshall is answering your coronavirus vaccine-related medical questions. If you have a question, email her or message her on Facebook or Twitter.

Dr. Mallika is offering her best advice, but as always, consult your personal doctor before making any decisions about your personal health.

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