On November 28, popular U.S. vlogger Kim Iversen claimed that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are global superspreaders of the new omicron variant.
“I can’t believe that after fully vaccinated travelers have been found to be the global spreaders of the omicron variant, we’re STILL talking about forcing people into being vaccinated,” she said on Twitter.
The tweet received thousands of shares and likes; still, the claim is misleading.
In fact, there is scant data on how the new variant is being spread. Vaccination remains a key to resisting the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it's true that vaccinated individuals can still catch and spread the virus, the vaccines are proven to significantly lessen the severe consequences of infection and reduce hospitalizations and deaths.
Furthermore, unvaccinated individuals are more likely to catch the virus from vaccinated people who may get breakthrough infections, a recent study in the U.K. found.
The new omicron mutation was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on November 24 (Greek letters are used to identify successive mutations).
On November 26, the WHO designated omicron a Variant of Concern (VOC) – that is, a variant that has the potential for increased transmissibility or potency.
Nonetheless, the WHO and national health agencies say it may take days or weeks to fully understand the new mutation, and that too little is known about omicron to assess whether it is more infectious or dangerous than prior mutations. That includes how it responds to vaccines.
On November 28, the WHO summarized what is currently known:
“It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta.”
“It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta. Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. Initial reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.”
The WHO said it is “working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta.”
In response to the discovery of the omicron variant, many countries have restricted or banned travel to and from Africa. The number of new COVID-19 cases in South Africa jumped to more than 3,200 daily on November 27, from about 200 a day in previous weeks, the Associated Press reported.
Cases of omicron infection have also been reported in growing numbers in Europe, Asia and South America.
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published earlier this month found COVID-19 vaccines are less effective in providing immunity among the immunocompromised people (77%) compared to those with healthy immune systems (90%). However, vaccination proved “highly effective” in preventing “severe outcomes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 5.2 million people since it began in December 2019. Some 374,000 daily new infections are being reported to the WHO.
Iversen has argued against vaccine mandates, claiming that because vaccinated people are spreading the disease and that the effects of vaccines wane over time. But co-leader of the recent U.K. study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, told the BBC that argues for more people to get vaccinated, not fewer.
"The ongoing transmission we are seeing between vaccinated people makes it essential for unvaccinated people to get vaccinated to protect themselves from acquiring infection and severe Covid-19, especially as more people will be spending time inside in close proximity during the winter months," said Prof Ajit Lalvani, of Imperial College London.
"We found that susceptibility to infection increased already within a few months after the second vaccine dose – so those eligible for booster shots should get them promptly."
Speculation and disinformation around omicron surged across social media platforms and anti-vaccine conspiracy theory websites as news broke about the mutation over the past week.