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Explainer-How worried should we be about the Omicron variant?

WorldNov 27, 2021 07:22AM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Travelers line up for a COVID-19 test during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 26, 2021. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) - The new Omicron coronavirus variant - identified first in South Africa, but also detected in Europe and Asia - is raising concern worldwide given the number of mutations, which might help it spread or even evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.

News of the variant prompted countries to announce new travel restrictions on Friday and sent drugmakers scrambling to see if their COVID-19 vaccines remain protective.

WHY ARE SCIENTISTS WORRIED?

The World Health Organization on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant, or Omicron, as a SARS-CoV-2 "variant of concern," saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of coronavirus.

The Delta variant remains dominant worldwide, accounting for 99.9% of U.S. cases, and it is not yet clear whether Omicron will be able to displace Delta, said Dr. Graham (NYSE:GHM) Snyder, medical director, infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But the new variant has over 30 mutations in the part of the virus that current vaccines target. It is also suspected of driving a spike in new infections in South Africa.

Omicron's mutations are likely to render certain COVID-19 treatments - including some manufactured antibodies - ineffective, said Dr. David Ho, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University.

Experimental antiviral pills - such as Pfizer Inc (NYSE:PFE)'s Paxlovid and Merck & Co Inc's molnupiravir - target parts of the virus that are not changed in Omicron, and these drugs could become even more important if vaccine-induced and natural immunity are threatened.

THE UNKNOWNS

Scientists say it could be several more weeks before they can define the type of disease caused by the variant, determine how contagious it is and identify how far it has already spread.

Some note that other variants of concern, including Beta, which was also first detected in South Africa, were ultimately replaced by Delta.

But the biggest question remains whether protection from COVID-19 vaccines - nearly 8 billion doses have been administered globally - will hold up. And, will people previously infected with the coronavirus be immune from infection with Omicron?

Experts also don't yet know whether Omicron will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other coronavirus strains.

BEST (NYSE:BEST) RESPONSE?

Omicron has not yet been identified in the United States, but it is likely already here, scientists said.

Even without the new variant, U.S. COVID-19 rates have increased in recent weeks, mainly in northern states, as people move indoors to avoid winter weather.

Some countries have moved to limit travel from southern Africa. Beyond government restrictions, individuals should still assess their own vulnerability to COVID and tolerance for risk as they make travel decisions for the winter holidays, Snyder from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said.

He and others said vaccination should remain a priority despite questions about effectiveness against Omicron, because it is likely that they still remain protective to a certain extent. Everyone should also continue to wear masks, avoid crowds, ventilate rooms, and wash hands.

"We have all those tools that will work against any variant," said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

Explainer-How worried should we be about the Omicron variant?
 

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Comments (5)
Chris Maz
ChristoM Nov 27, 2021 12:30PM ET
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I'm just curious as to why the name went from Nu to Omicron but skipped Xi?
fabijan maleta
fabijan maleta Nov 27, 2021 12:30PM ET
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beacuse chiese President name is Xi
Enoch Ping
Enoch Ping Nov 27, 2021 12:30PM ET
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John Hemphill
John Hemphill Nov 27, 2021 11:27AM ET
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Citizen uprisings all over the world. Turn up the fear dial to quell the masses.
J Collier
J Collier Nov 27, 2021 10:43AM ET
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a severe overreaction by NY governor and the inept demigods in the White House. #2022midterms
Mox Mox
Mox Mox Nov 27, 2021 8:45AM ET
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"which might help it spread or even evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination"....might....nobody has a flying clue
Scott Wolfe
Scott Wolfe Nov 27, 2021 8:07AM ET
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Even without the new variant, U.S. COVID-19 rates have increased in recent weeks, mainly in northern states, as people move indoors to avoid winter weather. Didn't they lock down our country and make everyone stay indoors to avoid the virus? Now that's why numbers are climbing in the north. Interesting.
John Hemphill
John Hemphill Nov 27, 2021 8:07AM ET
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Yes, I thought moving indoors was a lockdown/social distancing. And they claim that still works...so??? No recommendation of taking vitamin D3 which plummets in the fall/winter from lack of sunlight in the north. Sweden and Denmark public health hands it out to their citizens for free to support healthy immune system.
 
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