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The newly emerging SARS-CoV-2 Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant first identified in South Africa in November 2021 is characterized by an unusual number of amino acid mutations in its spike that renders existing vaccines and therapeutic monoclonal antibodies dramatically less effective. The in vivo pathogenicity, transmissibility, and fitness of this new Variant of Concerns are unknown. We investigated these virological attributes of the Omicron variant in comparison with those of the currently dominant Delta (B.1.617.2) variant in the golden Syrian hamster COVID-19 model. Omicron-infected hamsters developed significantly less body weight losses, clinical scores, respiratory tract viral burdens, cytokine/chemokine dysregulation, and tissue damages than Delta-infected hamsters. The Omicron and Delta variant were both highly transmissible (100% vs 100%) via contact transmission. Importantly, the Omicron variant consistently demonstrated about 10-20% higher transmissibility than the already-highly transmissible Delta variant in repeated non-contact transmission studies (overall: 30/36 vs 24/36, 83.3% vs 66.7%). The Delta variant displayed higher fitness advantage than the Omicron variant without selection pressure in both in vitro and in vivo competition models. However, this scenario drastically changed once immune selection pressure with neutralizing antibodies active against the Delta variant but poorly active against the Omicron variant were introduced, with the Omicron variant significantly outcompeting the Delta variant. Taken together, our findings demonstrated that while the Omicron variant is less pathogenic than the Delta variant, it is highly transmissible and can outcompete the Delta variant under immune selection pressure. Next-generation vaccines and antivirals effective against this new VOC are urgently needed.

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