On November 25, South African scientists identified a highly-mutated variant of the coronavirus right in time for the holidays. By November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) had categorized B.1.1.529 as a “variant of concern.” It also got a name, “omicron,” based on the Greek alphabet, which is how all major variants have been named so far.
The current seven-day moving average of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is more than 88,400, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s an increase of 16% from the previous week, even though the first omicron case hasn’t yet been detected in the country, per the Washington Post. (It has, however, been detected in Canada.) So, many people are understandably concerned that the variant could lead to a fifth wave of surging cases. Unfortunately, that’s a real possibility.
Omicron is concerning because it has about 50 mutations that set it apart from other variants, according to the New York Times, including at least 30 on its spike protein, which is what the virus uses to bond with human cells. Spike protein mutations cause alarm because the antibodies we produce, whether they’re from vaccination or previous infection, are mostly built to fight against SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein. If those antibodies can’t recognize the spike protein, it’s possible the virus could be more effective at evading immunity.
But at this point, that’s only a theoretical possibility. Several health officials, including Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said it will take at least two weeks to get a fuller understanding of how easily this variant spreads, how sick it makes people, and whether it impacts the effectiveness of current COVID-19 vaccines.
“The profile of the mutations strongly suggests that it’s going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection that you would get, for example, from the monoclonal antibody or from the convalescent serum after a person’s been infected and possibly even against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies,” Dr. Fauci said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “So it’s not necessarily that that’s going to happen, but it’s a strong indication that we really need to be prepared for that.”
And early indications point to, at the very least, the variant spreading easily. “When you look at it clinically, it appears from what we’re observing with our South African colleagues—who have been extremely cooperative and helpful to us to understand this—that it appears to be spreading very readily and that it has a transmission advantage,” Dr. Fauci said Monday morning on “CBS Mornings.”
So far, the variant has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Israel, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, and several European countries, including England, Germany, and Italy, according to the Washington Post.
As of Monday morning, the United States joined several other countries in issuing travel restrictions from South Africa and neighboring countries. Many have criticized these travel bans, including the WHO. “Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa, said in a statement. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”