Michaeleen Doucleff

We've known for about a month now that a third shot of the vaccine is critical for protecting against infection with the omicron variant — and for keeping people out of the hospital.

Now researchers in the U.K. have the first estimates for how long a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine will last. And the findings are mixed.

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.

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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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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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.

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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