TAMPA, Fla. — As Americans return to their daily lives after the Thanksgiving holiday, a new variant of the COVID-19 virus has emerged from South Africa as a possible global threat. The new variant has the potential to be serious, but there are more questions than answers about the variant and the impact it may have on everyday life.
Below, ABC Action News looked at the data to provide you with an in-depth look at what we currently know about the new variant that has some global epidemiologists worried.
What is the new variant?
The new variant of COVID-19 is the B.1.1.529 variant and was labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on November 26 based on advice from the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. It’s since been named the omicron variant.
Where did the omicron variant come from?
It’s unknown where the new variant originated, but the omicron variant was first detected in South Africa, where it has since become the dominant strain of COVID-19. South African scientists noted the variant has a high number of mutations in a key spike protein the virus uses to enter cells of those infected.
“The delta variant I think had about 10 or 12 mutations in the spike protein. This thing has over 30, so it’s a really, really complete very, very substantial change in structure of that protein," said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a Distinguished USF Health professor. "Some of the mutations, based upon computer modeling, have suggested that it may allow it to escape the immunity that’s induced by the vaccines.”
But Unnasch also explains we don't really know about vaccine effectiveness and this new variant yet.
How is South Africa handling the omicron variant?
The omicron variant became the dominant strain in South Africa less than two weeks after it was first detected, according to CNN. For comparison purposes, CNN reported the delta variant took several months to become the dominant strain in South Africa in early 2021.
How contagious is the omicron variant?
There’s not a clear answer to this question, but Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health said, “I think it’s clear from what’s happening in South Africa, that this omicron variant does spread rapidly.”
Officially, the WHO said, “it is not yet clear whether omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including delta.”
The WHO noted epidemiologic studies are being conducted to see if Omicron is spreading due to increased contagiousness or other factors. However, the WHO said, “preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron, as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited.”
Is Omicron a more severe variant of COVID-19?
Again, it’s very early in the discovery process of omicron, and without more scientific research on the matter, it’s hard to nail down a yes or no answer.
Anecdotally, the WHO said there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but it’s not known if this is Omicron-based or simply a wider spread of COVID-19 in the nation. The WHO said, “there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants.”
The WHO went on to note that initial cases were reported among college students who tended to have milder cases of COVID-19, but Omicron’s overall level of severity will take “days to several weeks” to understand.
How is the WHO assessing the threat the omicron variant may pose?
According to the WHO, “the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high. Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place. The overall global risk related to the new VOC Omicron is assessed as very high.”
Read the WHO technical document given to nations
Where is the omicron variant currently spreading?
The WHO said local transmission has been reported in South Africa and there is evidence of spread to several countries in four WHO regions (African, Eastern Mediterranean, European, and Western Pacific regions). Cases have been discovered in Canada, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, multiple African nations, and other nations.
As of November 29, most of the cases are travel-related, but the WHO said it expects this to change as more information becomes available.
Does the United States have any cases of the omicron variant?
Dr. Anthony Fauci said no cases of the Omicron variant have officially been reported in the United States.
What about travel bans?
Multiple nations have announced either outright travel bans from multiple south African nations or implemented travel restrictions for non-citizens coming from that region.
The United States restricted non-citizens entering the country from: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
Other nations like Israel and Japan have closed their borders, while other nations close off air travel to the south African region. CNN compiled a running list of the travel bans that you can read here.
Can COVID-19 testing detect the omicron variant?
Some good news is the WHO said current PCR diagnostic tests can detect the new Omicron variant.
“Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test (ThermoFisher TaqPath), one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure, SGTF) and this test can therefore be used as a marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation,” the WHO said in a statement.
What happens in Florida if omicron appears here?
Florida’s legislature limited local officials from implementing many public health measures during the most recent special session. If omicron, or another more infectious or deadly variant appear, almost all decisions will have to come from the state level.
What can I do to protect myself?
The same safety measures that have been recommended throughout the pandemic apply now. Maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, and washing your hands frequently all help prevent transmission.
The recommendations now include getting vaccinated using one of the available, free vaccines the United States is offering.
Officially, the WHO said efforts to increase vaccinations should be accelerated by public health officials with a priority for populations at high risk including older adults, health care workers, and those with underlying conditions.
What else should I know?
Remember, medical information and recommendations can and oftentimes do change as more studies and research is conducted on diseases.
Until more is known on the Omicron variant, the normal COVID-19 protections including wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, and especially getting vaccinated all will help keep you and those around you safe.
Health experts want people not to panic right now as researchers work to learn more about omicron.
“This is all concern at this point in time. It’s not something that we really know for sure," said Dr. Unnasch. "It’s something to be wary and keep an eye on, but it’s not something to really freak out about at this point in time. There have been other variants that have come through that look really bad, and they fizzled.”
Sources: World Health Organization 1, 2; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention; CNN; Johns Hopkins Medicine