Michaeleen Doucleff

There's a growing narrative in the mainstream media, on social media — maybe even at your dinner table. That is: The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is weakening and evolving into a less deadly virus. In the future, each new variant that crops up will cause milder illness than the previous variant.

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When it was discovered, omicron alarmed scientists.

The variant looked wildly different from earlier versions of the coronavirus — and it quickly became clear that these mutations gave omicron an uncanny ability to sidestep our vaccines and spread very rapidly.

But it has taken longer to untangle what, if anything, sets an omicron illness apart from that of its predecessors. And most of all, does this variant cause less severe disease than the variants that have come before it?

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Several nights ago, my husband texted me these questions while traveling:

Does my vaccine not work anymore?

Should I get a booster even though it's been only four months since my second shot?

"Excellent questions," I thought. One thing is crystal clear about the highly mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus: It has a huge ability to bypass immune protection and cause breakthrough infections.

Here's what you need to know about how well the vaccines are working in the face of the omicron variant and the best timing for getting your booster shot.

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It's been about a month since scientists first detected the highly mutated coronavirus variant dubbed "omicron."

Since then, scientists have come to learn that omicron spreads faster than the delta variant and is the quickest-spreading variant the world has yet faced. It also has a huge ability to bypass immune protection and cause breakthrough infections.

The big open-ended question right now centers on omicron's severity: Does omicron cause milder disease, compared to previous variants? Does it thereby lower the risk of severe disease and hospitalization?

The new coronavirus variant, called omicron, was first identified in South Africa only about a month ago and is already spreading quickly in Europe and North America. It has an exceptionally high number of mutations, and those mutations appear to make it more transmissible than the delta variant.

Now scientists in South Africa have just released the first data looking at how well the vaccines will work against the omicron variant. And the news is mixed.

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With the omicron variant continuing to spread in a number of countries, including the U.S., scientists have been anxiously awaiting data to answer this question: How well will the vaccines work against this new variant?

On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, scientists in South Africa and Germany released preliminary results from two small studies that begin to provide answers.

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The worrisome omicron variant of the coronavirus has been turning up all over the world. It has not been found in the United States yet. But as the president's chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, told NPR today...

Updated December 3, 2021 at 5:30 PM ET

Scientists in South Africa now have evidence that the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads more than twice as quickly as the delta variant in that country.

"This wave seems much faster than the delta wave. And we thought the delta wave was really fast. It's unbelievable," says Juliet Pulliam, who directs South Africa's DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University.

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Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

Scientists have evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads explosively in white-tailed deer and that the virus is widespread in this deer population across the United States.

Researchers say the findings are quite concerning and could have vast implications for the long-term course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, first emerged, there have been several signs that white-tailed deer would be highly susceptible to the virus — and that many of these animals were catching it across the country.

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Early in 2017, a team of medical personnel, including doctors, nurses and volunteers, returned home to Florida after volunteering at a clinic in Haiti. Soon after their return, 20 members of the team began to feel a bit under the weather.

"They had a slight fever and didn't feel 100% right," says virologist John Lednicky at the University of Florida. "But they weren't very sick."

Back in the 1980s, scientists in the U.K. performed an experiment that — at first glance — sounds unethical. "Volunteers came into the lab, and someone squirted virus up their nose," says computational biologist Jennie Lavine.

The researchers took a liquid packed with coronavirus particles and intentionally tried to make 15 volunteers sick.

Oh no. Not again.

Just when COVID surge in the U.S. has begun to decline, another coronavirus variant has immediately cropped up. This time in the U.K.

Known in the media as "delta-plus," this mutant is raising some concern because over the past few weeks, it's begun to spread in several parts of Britain. It now accounts for about 6% of all cases in the U.K.

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Last week, a panel of scientists and doctors met to discuss the Pfizer booster vaccine. Specifically, the goal was to advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about who needs a third shot.

The agency ultimately recommended anyone age 65 and over should get one as well as people who live in long-term care facilities or people ages 50 to 64, who have underlying health conditions.

But several panelists felt there was a more urgent matter at hand than Pfizer boosters.

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For the past several weeks, Dr. Boghuma Titanji has been swamped with questions about COVID-19 vaccine boosters. Even the experts seem confused, she says.

"I'm even getting questions from my colleagues, who are doctors, asking me, 'What should I do?' " says the infectious disease specialist at Emory University.

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Some scientists have called it "superhuman immunity" or "bulletproof." But immunologist Shane Crotty prefers "hybrid immunity."

"Overall, hybrid immunity to SARS-CoV-2 appears to be impressively potent," Crotty wrote in commentary in Science back in June.

No matter what you call it, this type of immunity offers much-needed good news in what seems like an endless array of bad news regarding COVID-19.

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