Fears over the omicron COVID-19 variant have spread across the globe within days of its discovery, sending stocks tumbling, prompting travel restrictions and drawing international attention to an uptick in cases in South Africa.
The international reaction is happening weeks faster than the sluggish response to the delta variant. By the time delta was named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization in May 2021, it had already spread in India for months and had been seeded across the globe.
In contrast, omicron was first reported to the WHO on Tuesday as COVID cases in South Africa have suddenly spiked to thousands per day. By Friday, it had been named and labeled a “variant of concern,” the most serious type.
With omicron’s high number of mutations, experts have raised yet unanswered questions about the risk of reinfection for people who have been vaccinated or previously infected with other variants.
Experts have applauded the WHO for moving quickly to sound the alarm on omicron, and South Africa for its fast, transparent reporting on the variant.
That will kickstart studies over the next few weeks into its contagiousness, virulence, and “immune escape,” which is its ability to resist an immune response from prior infections or from vaccines, emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University Dr. Leana Wen said.
“The level of alarm at this point is completely appropriate,” Wen told USA TODAY. “I would much rather that we take action and then find out that, actually this this variant does respond very well to the vaccines that we have.”
Early data is troubling, but incomplete, experts say.
The outbreak of the omicron variant in South Africa, where scientists first raised alarms about the variant’s spread, was like a “vertical line,” according to Dr. Eric Topol, vice president for research at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.
“We haven’t seen anything like that,” he told USA TODAY. “The line of slope is much higher than the initial delta line.”
Topol said the number of concerning mutations to the virus may make it more contagious than previous variants, and that it is likely to have evolved in an immunocompromised person.
Also in the news:
►The WHO says it skipped two letters in the Greek alphabet — Nu and Xi — in naming the new variant omicron because Nu is too easily confused with the word “new” and because Xi is a common last name, according to a statement from the agency.
►The CDC this week dropped its percentage of vaccinated adults in Pennsylvania by nearly five percentage points, to 68.9% from 73.7%, in what apparently was a data correction to weed out duplicates.
►The World Trade Organization is postponing its conference of government ministers set to open Tuesday after Switzerland initiated new travel restrictions following the emergence of omicron.
►Stocks sank Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly falling more than 1,000 points, as investors reacted to news of omicron.
📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 776,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 260.9 million cases and more than 5.1 million deaths. More than 196.1 millionAmericans — roughly 59% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
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A sign reading ‘Stay safe’ is shown on Regent Street in London on Friday amid news of the latest COVID-19 variant of concern.
Omicron cases found in UK, other countries; experts say it could be in US undetected
Even with the fast reaction to news of omicron, cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong and the UK.
United Kingdom Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed Saturday that two people tested positive for the omicron variant in Nottingham and Chelmsford, a southeastern English town. He added the cases were related to travel from southern Africa.
Germany said it has a probable case, and authorities in the Netherlands are working to see if 61 people who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving on flights from South Africa have the omicron variant. The Czech Republic also detected a suspected omicron case in a person who spent time in Namibia, the Guardian reported.
There are likely already undiscovered cases in the U.S., Dr. Eric Topol told USA TODAY, a concern echoed by presidential medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci in a Saturday NBC interview.
“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re having travel-related cases they’ve noted in other places already, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is going to go all over,” Fauci said.
Fauci called Biden’s decision to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region “prudent” and told Americans not to panic but to take the variant seriously as health experts learn more about omicron. He also urged vaccinations, adding that booster shots give “a very, very important edge” in warding off the virus, including potentially dangerous variants.
Scientists wait for answers to key questions
Scientists say there is still much to learn about the omicron variant, including key questions that remain unanswered.
Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University’s school of public health, noted three metrics for evaluating the potential effect of a variant in a Twitter thread: if the new variant is more transmissible than the current predominant variant, if the variant causes more severe disease and if it will render prior infections or vaccines less effective.
All these questions remain largely unanswered, though Jha said it is “super unlikely” that the variant will render vaccines useless.
Experts say it may take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against omicron. Epidemiologist Céline Gounder estimates it may take about two weeks to make this determination.