Just as we were starting to get a handle on COVID-19, two new strains of the virus emerged, each with different traits and severity. But what’s the difference between the original COVID-19, Delta, and Omicron?

Scientists are still sussing that out, but what we do know is that Omicron appears to be a more contagious but less severe virus. More people are getting sicker—North Carolina broke its case record four days in a row last week—but fewer are ending up in the emergency room than had with Delta.

All three strains work in essentially the same way: a spike protein on the virus binds to the cell, hijacking it like a pirate ship. Vaccines work by disabling the spike. However, with each new strain come more and more mutations to the spike protein, allowing it to board healthy cells anyway, resulting in breakthrough cases.

Case in point: despite the fact that 70 percent of adult North Carolinians are vaccinated, positive COVID-19 tests since December have surged from 7 percent to 31 percent.

But it’s not all gloom and doom: some scientists believe Omicron may hasten the end to the pandemic if it continues to burn through the population at lightning speed but leaves behind a sea of folks with natural immunity. That will come in handy especially if the next variation of the virus is more severe.

Here’s what we know about the differences between the strains. The number of molecules in the table below represents the strains’ relative intensity as compared to each other.


Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to ltauss@indyweek.com.