Misinformation aimed at downplaying the severity of the coronavirus has spread online since the early days of the pandemic. One of the most pervasive falsehoods is the claim that COVID-19 is just another strain of the seasonal flu.
Now, some social media users have targeted the latest coronavirus variant.
“Omicron is the common cold people,” reads a Dec. 27 Facebook post.
The claim comes as the U.S. reports record-breaking COVID-19 infections, in part due to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant. Similar versions of the claim have been shared to Facebook and Twitter.
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Researchers are still looking into omicron, which was first identified in South Africa on Nov. 24. Early studies suggest omicron may be less severe than previous variants, such as delta.
But the new variant is not the common cold.
“The omicron variant should not be considered as part of the list of viruses that cause the common cold,” Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease specialist whose laboratory at the University of California-San Francisco detected the first omicron case in the U.S., told USA TODAY in an email.
USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the claim for comment.
The most frequently reported symptoms of omicron resemble symptoms of the common cold: a runny nose, congestion, cough and fatigue.
But the two are not the same. COVID-19 is caused by a different virus.
While human coronaviruses can cause the common cold, rhinoviruses are the primary culprit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a coronavirus that first emerged in 2019.
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“(SARS-CoV-2) and all of its variants, including omicron, are genetically distinct from the viruses that cause the common cold,” Chiu said. “Although there is growing evidence that the omicron variant may be associated with milder illness than other SARS-CoV-2 variants such as delta, both deaths and (a) rising number of hospitalizations due to omicron have been reported.”
In addition to their root causes, experts say the common cold and the omicron coronavirus variant are distinct in terms of severity.
People typically recover from a common cold in seven to 10 days, and the infection generally does not require medical attention, the Mayo Clinic says on its website. Omicron, on the other hand, can cause more serious illness, according to Dr. Daniel Culver, chair of the Department of Pulmonary Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
“The common cold typically causes mild, self-limited symptoms whereas omicron, like other COVID variants, can result in serious or fatal illness,” Culver said via email.
As evidence, he pointed to crowded intensive care units in the U.S. and new admissions to hospitals due to the virus.
Jeremy Luban, an infectious disease expert at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, said via email that while vulnerable people can occasionally die from a rhinovirus infection, it is “relatively rare” and the coronavirus is “far more serious and lethal” than the common cold. While many people can have mild to moderate symptoms when infected with COVID-19, he said more than 800,000 Americans have died due to the virus – and that number is “likely an underestimate of the real lethality of COVID-19.”
There is some good news, though: Medical experts have told USA TODAY omicron’s peak is unlikely to last long because the variant is highly contagious. And people with a booster shot and a healthy immune system appear to experience fewer symptoms.
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Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert at the University of California-San Francisco, said in an email that omicron symptoms for vaccinated people can resemble those of a moderate upper respiratory infection, while unvaccinated people are more likely to be hospitalized.
USA TODAY reached out to the CDC for comment.
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that omicron is the common cold. Rhinoviruses are the primary cause of the common cold, while omicron is a variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Omicron and the common cold share similar symptoms, but experts say they are genetically distinct. While researchers are still looking into the severity of the variant, omicron is thought to be more dangerous than the common cold.
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