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No, omicron cannot 'target' vaccinated individuals

A virus cannot target a specific person regardless of vaccination status. "Immune evasion," along with increased transmissibility, are reasons why omicron spreads.

After the omicron COVID-19 variant was first reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa on Nov. 24, the variant was quickly discovered around the world, including in the United States.

Since the emergence of the COVID-19 variant, there has been speculation that vaccinated individuals are more susceptible to catching omicron than unvaccinated individuals. 

According to Google Trends data, “omicron in vaccinated” saw a spike in searches beginning on Dec. 5. There are hundreds of tweets that claim the variant “targets” the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated (see examples here, here, here, here and here).

THE QUESTION

Can the omicron variant specifically target a vaccinated person?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

 No, COVID-19 variants - including omicron - cannot target vaccinated people.

The CDC and WHO say being vaccinated provides greater protection against severe illness and hospitalization and helps reduce the likelihood of someone spreading COVID-19, but it does not eliminate the risk entirely. 

WHAT WE FOUND

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 26 designated omicron a variant of concern because preliminary evidence suggests it may reinfect people more easily than other variants.

Since then, health professionals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the WHO have recommended individuals should get an additional booster shot to help stave off the variant.

A variant can’t specifically target a vaccinated person over an unvaccinated person because that’s just not how viruses work. 

Dr. Paul Bienasz told VERIFY omicron is a “product of viral evolution.” 

“So this virus has been passing from human-to-human to more humans, and in some individuals persisting in those individuals for a significant amount of time. And over time, what happens is that viruses mutate, they diversify, they do so in a random way,” he said. 

Bienasz explained the mutations become smarter at evading antibodies, and the antibodies provided by the vaccine “are the very same antibodies that omicron would have previously encountered and evolved to resist.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to this as “immune evasion,” and this, combined with increased transmissibility, are the reasons why omicron is spreading so rapidly.

Further, there is not enough evidence from the CDC or WHO to support claims vaccinated individuals are more likely to become infected with the omicron variant. The CDC says they are still collecting data on how well vaccines and medications are working against omicron.

WHO told VERIFY in an email: “There are still limited data on the clinical severity of omicron. More data are needed to understand the severity profile and how severity is impacted by vaccination and pre-existing immunity.” 

According to the CDC, people who were unvaccinated have a greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and a greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than people who were fully vaccinated.

Studies have already shown that boosters are effective. When a person gets a booster shot, it essentially provides them an additional safety net against COVID-19 variants, Bienasz told VERIFY. 

“People who have had two mRNA vaccine doses, and then later had a booster dose or third dose, their levels of immunity begin to approach those very high levels of immunity that we've seen in people who have been both infected, and vaccinated,” he said, of being more immune to omicron. “Again, their antibodies seem to be much better able to deal with variants such as omicron. And I think this is a very, very powerful argument in favor of everybody getting a booster at this time.”

Dr. Saralyn Mark told VERIFY the reason people might think omicron targets the vaccinated is directly related to vaccine hesitancy or resistance, and individuals really need to think about the big picture - the purpose of a vaccine.

“We have vaccines to decrease your chances for hospitalization and death. And we know that that has been quite effective. But we have seen in our hospitals that over 80% of those who are in hospitals are generally those who have not been vaccinated. With the omicron variant, this is a variant that has well over 50 different mutations and may evade parts of our immune system,” Mark said. “But what we have seen is that those who've been vaccinated tend to have mild, more mild cases. It is extremely important that we use our other public health measures as well, such as masking social distancing, hand washing and ventilation.”

More from VERIFY: Fact Sheet: COVID-19 omicron variant

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