There is a new coronavirus variant called “Omicron” that reached the United States on November 29 in San Francisco and has since been reported in Hawaii, Colorado, New York and Minnesota. It was first reported in South Africa on November 24, and has been detected in 24 countries in the last few days.
Originally reported by Dr. Angelique Coetezee, according to The New York Times, she has said that the patients she has seen so far with the variant have had mild to moderate symptoms. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling it a “variant of concern” because, “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant…”
In response to the detection of the new variant, many countries are shutting down travel to the countries in the southern part of Africa where it was first detected and the most cases are currently found. While symptoms are milder, the cases are, like with Delta, spreading like wildfire through these predominately unvaccinated populations.
One college campus in Pretoria, where only about 22% of 18 to 34 year olds have been vaccinated, has been the epicenter of the Omicron spike, according to usnews.com. Numbers quickly jumped there from a few hundred cases a day to thousands. But they are not filling up hospitals, as the Delta variant did in India over the summer. Those who have been hospitalized in Africa have been unvaccinated or had an underlying condition.
Unlike previous cases of COVID-19, there is no loss of smell or taste, patients have only had a slight cough, but felt body aches and some experienced night sweats.
According to cnbc.com, Coetezee told the BBC, “It actually started with a male patient who’s around the age of 33 … and he said to me that he’s just [been] extremely tired for the past few days and he’s got these body aches and pains with a bit of a headache”.
The New York Times article explained that the distinctive Omicron mutations are making it easy to identify quickly with one type of PCR nasal swab and a lab test. But these tests also made researchers in South Africa aware of more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, the component on the surface of the variant that allows it to bind to human cells and gain entry to the body. Having so many mutations is what is making health officials wary that Omicron might be able to evade antibodies produced by vaccination or previous infection.
Both the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are monitoring the new variant, but say that it will take several weeks to get the full picture. While scientists expect to learn more in the coming weeks, with what is known so far they say that there is no reason to believe Omicron is impervious to current vaccines.
Currently, the WHO and CDC are asking that public continue to wear masks, wash their hands regularly, practice social distancing, stay away from large crowds, get vaccinated, and if an individual has been vaccinated to be sure to get a booster. Pfizer and Moderna boosters should be given at least six months after the initial series and the Johnson and Johnson booster two months after the initial vaccination.
Vaccination is still the best deterrent to hospitalization and death. All coronavirus vaccine producers say they now know enough to make adjustments to the vaccine should it become necessary to fight the Omicron variant. Regeneron, which makes monoclonal antibody treatments, would also update their formula if necessary.