New variants of COVID-19 have emerged in several places around the world. One of these new variants, the Omicron variant, is now the main variant everywhere, including in Aotearoa New Zealand.
On this page, you can find the following information:
- Is it normal for viruses to change?
- What does the Omicron variant mean for New Zealanders?
- Does the COVID-19 vaccine work on the COVID-19 Omicron variant?
It is normal for viruses to constantly change. This is known as mutation. These changes create new strains or variants of viruses. Read about why and how viruses change.
Many variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been found around the world during this pandemic and have spread to other countries. They are now named using the Greek alphabet according to the order in which they have been identified. Current known variants are Alpha (identified in the UK), Beta (identified in South Africa), Gamma (identified in Brazil), Delta (identified in India) and Omicron (identified in South Africa).
The Omicron variant is the most transmissible variant, spreading a lot more easily than the original version of the COVID-19 virus and other variants.
The Omicron variant has some differences compared to the Delta version of the virus. The main one is the ease with which it is transmitted (passed on), making it more challenging to contain the spread of the virus in an outbreak.
- Omicron appears to cause milder symptoms than Delta, at least in vaccinated people.
- People who are unvaccinated are likely to experience more severe symptoms than people who are vaccinated.
- The 5 main symptoms experienced are runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and a sore throat.
- The chance of infecting others, such as people within your household or other contacts, is even higher than it was with Delta as Omicron is so transmissible.
- The incubation period (time taken to develop the disease) is about a day shorter with Omicron (3 days) than it was with Delta (4 days).
- More people may have no symptoms (asymptomatic) when infectious which means they may not know they have it.
The important thing to remember is that, whatever the variant, it is still COVID-19. So all the advice about how to stop the spread by getting all the vaccinations you are eligible for, isolating, wearing masks and social distancing still applies.
Although it's going to be harder, you can still help stop the spread of the Omicron variant:
Yes, being fully vaccinated protects you against Omicron variant (but that protection is less than for Delta). Having a booster shot, especially a recent one, helps to increase that protection even more. Vaccination will reduce your risk of having serious COVID-19 symptoms if you do get COVID-19. There is some evidence that getting a COVID-19 vaccination (if you are not already vaccinated) can help to aid recovery during long COVID. Read about protection against long COVID.
People who are fully vaccinated can still become infected with COVID-19 but the risk is much lower than people who are not fully vaccinated. Protection against infection with either Delta or Omicron decreases over time.
- New COVID-19 variants Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US, 2022
- The effects of virus variants on COVID-19 vaccines World Health Organization, 2021
- COVID-19 – about the Delta variant Ministry of Health, NZ, 2021
- About the omicron variant Ministry of Health, NZ, 2022
- Omicron vs Delta – how the 2 variants compare, according to experts and research Health.com, US, 2022