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The omicron variant of COVID-19 was first detected in November. It is not the same thing as the common cold, and public health officials aren’t conflating the two.
The common cold is a catchall that refers to the mild respiratory illness that can be caused by several different viruses, including some seasonal coronaviruses that are separate and less serious than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
There is still much to learn about the omicron variant. That it shows up in COVID-19 testing is one indicator that it is distinct from other viruses that cause the common cold.
In February 2020, as the earliest COVID-19 cases cropped up in the U.S., the late conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners there was no need to worry. "The coronavirus is the common cold, folks," he said, pushing a false claim that would soon be repeated widely online.
Nearly two years later, and after millions of people have died worldwide from the coronavirus and its variants, social media users are still taking up the refrain.
"People catch colds more often during the winter months," said one Dec. 20 Facebook post about the latest coronavirus variant of concern, omicron. "Maybe they’re just calling the common cold or an RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) infection the omicron variant."
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The omicron variant isn’t the same as the common cold, and public health officials aren’t "just calling the common cold" omicron to scare people, the CDC and five experts told PolitiFact.
"Both RSV and the common cold are very different than the omicron variant of the SARS CoV-2 virus," said Cindy Prins, clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida.
"The suggestion that public health officials are ‘just calling the common cold’ the omicron variant is totally off the mark," added Richard Watanabe, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, who said the coronavirus and its variants are "genetically distinct" from the flu and other viruses "much like humans and cows are distinctly different."
The World Health Organization designated the omicron variant of the coronavirus as a variant of concern in late November. Officials were alarmed by the strain’s more than 50 mutations, and by preliminary evidence that showed some worrying trends, including high transmissibility.
Four days later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed suit.
"The omicron variant is not the common cold," CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in a statement to PolitiFact.
Some early evidence out of South Africa provided hope that the omicron variant may cause a more mild disease than other strains, but many patients there were younger, making them less likely to develop severe illness to begin with. Scientists in London, meanwhile, said they’ve seen no evidence so far that the variant causes milder illness than the delta strain before it.
In the U.S., the CDC followed up with 43 people infected with the omicron variant, more than three-quarters of whom were fully vaccinated, and one-third of whom had also received a booster shot. The agency posted the results on Dec. 10.
Their survey found that only one person had been hospitalized, no one had died, and the most common symptoms were cough, fatigue, and congestion or runny nose. But the CDC report noted that most severe outcomes don’t usually show up right away, and that symptoms are expected to be tamer in people who got vaccinated or had prior infections.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Dec. 17 that the agency believes the omicron cases among the vaccinated and boosted "are milder or asymptomatic because of vaccine protection."
Overall, there is still much scientists are racing to determine about the variant and its ability to spread, evade existing immunity and trigger severe disease. But experts said that while more time is needed, it should not be taken lightly.
"The virus causing omicron is an offshoot of SARS-CoV-1, which has killed millions of people, so I would not compare it to the common cold," said Dr. Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The common cold is not a specific virus, but an infection that can be caused by several viruses, said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Security.
Rhinoviruses are the most typical cause of the common cold, according to the CDC. A common cold can also develop from several other viruses, including the four less serious coronaviruses that circulate seasonally among humans, which are distinct from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and the other more dangerous strains, like SARS and MERS, Prins said.
That’s one possible reason for the confusion online. But scientists can distinguish COVID-19 and its variants from other viruses, including the seasonal coronaviruses, through testing.
"SARS-CoV-2 cases are only reported if there was a confirmed SARS-CoV-2 case, not just reported symptoms, either through a PCR or rapid antigen test," said Brooke Nichols, assistant professor of global health at Boston University.
Another potential reason for confusion among social media users: a preliminary study from a Massachusetts firm said that the omicron variant may have picked up some of its genetic material from another virus that causes the common cold.
However, one of the study’s authors told Reuters that despite the firm’s findings, the claims that the omicron variant is really just the common cold are inaccurate.
"The identification of new variants of COVID are confirmed using genetic analysis, so there’s no way to confuse the new variant with anything else," Watanabe said.
A Facebook post said, "Maybe they’re just calling the common cold … the omicron variant."
Scientists are still studying the severity of the disease caused by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
But the variant is not the same as the common cold, and public health officials are not trying to pass one off as the other, either.
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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Omicron Variant: What You Need to Know," Dec. 19, 2021
BuzzFeed News, "We Know A Lot More About Omicron Now. It’s Not Good News," Dec. 17, 2021
The New York Times, "Omicron: What We Know About the New Coronavirus Variant," Dec. 16, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.529 (Omicron) Variant — United States, December 1–8, 2021," Dec. 10, 2021
Reuters, "Fact Check-Omicron is not the common cold ‘rebranded,'" Dec. 10, 2021
The Washington Post, "Omicron possibly more infectious because it shares genetic code with common cold coronavirus, study says," Dec. 4, 2021
PolitiFact, "Omicron is still being studied, but data in viral Facebook post is wrong," Dec. 9, 2021
PolitiFact, "Many news outlets have reported on the mild symptoms of omicron infections in South Africa," Nov. 30, 2021
PolitiFact, "2019 coronavirus isn’t the common cold," March 9, 2020
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Rush Limbaugh’s misleading claim that the new coronavirus is 'the common cold,'" Feb. 27, 2021
Email interview with Amesh Adalja, senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Dec. 20, 2021
Email interview with Dr. Myron Cohen, professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology, and epidemiology, and director of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Dec. 20, 2021
Email interview with Cindy Prins, clinical associate professor of epidemiology and assistant dean for educational affairs at the University of Florida, Dec. 20, 2021
Email interview with Richard Watanabe, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, Dec. 20, 2021
Email interview with Brooke Nichols, assistant professor of global health at Boston University School of Public Health, Dec. 20, 2021
Email statement from Kristen Nordlund, spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dec. 20, 2021
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