In the past month or two, we were in the position to say that the world was in its final leg of COVID-19. Scientists believed that the October 2021 surge was the last, and statements were made from a Pfizer board member saying that COVID-19 may end by January 2022.
But over the last couple of days, new developments have shunted any hope of herd immunity soon. A new variant, which is potentially more dangerous, more transmissible, and able to evade current vaccines, has been spotted across the world. Scientists have named it Omicron.
Little is known so far about the new COVID-19 strain, but experts suspect that it is more dominant than delta, which was the culprit behind recent surges in the U.S. Studies are underway to unearth more about Omicron, but here’s what we know so far.
Omicron is a Variant of Concern
On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization has named Omicron, also known as the B.1.1.529 strain, as a variant of concern. This statement was given after reports of Omicron spreading in three distinct peaks in South Africa, similar to the waves brought by the delta variant.
What is more alarming is that Omicron is believed to have various mutations with “worrying characteristics” that can increase its transmissibility and improve its ability to infect cells. According to WHO’s primary evidence, the large number of mutations pose a greater risk of infection compared to other variants of concern.
No Data Yet on Vaccine Effectiveness Against Omicron
Omicron has a different genetic makeup compared to the late COVID-19 variants delta and delta plus, which leads to the question of whether or not current vaccines will be able to protect against it.
There is no data yet that shows that current vaccines will not work against Omicron, but experts say that there are hints that they could be less effective. Some of the new variant’s mutations are known to help the virus evade and avoid detection by the immune system and resist antibodies.
Five Cases of Omicron Detected in the U.S.
Omicron was first spotted in South Africa when it lead to a sharp incline of new cases in Pretoria City, where the variant now dominates the outbreak. Other areas that have been affected by Omicron include Botswana, Belgium, Hongkong, and Israel.
Five States in the U.S. have confirmed Omicron COVID-19 cases so far. These include Minnesota, California, Los Angeles, Colorado, and Hawaii. The CDC has put surveillance systems in place to detect and identify the variant quickly.
U.S. Imposes New Travel Restrictions
Along with surveillance systems that are expected to spot Omicron and enable health officials to stop its spread in the U.S., the Biden administration has also imposed new travel restrictions. In a proclamation effective November 29, 2021, the U.S. government has suspended and limited entry to the United States of non-citizens who were physically present in the following areas:
- Republic of Botswana
- Kingdom of Eswatini
- Kingdom of Lesotho
- Republic of Malawi
- Republic of Mozambique
- Republic of Namibia
- Republic of South Africa
- Republic of Zimbabwe
Individuals from these nations who wish to enter the U.S. must go through a 14-day quarantine before they can be permitted entry.
Research Underway to Understand Omicron
As of writing, there is very little known about the Omicron variant and the risk it poses. However, research is underway to better understand it. In South Africa, researchers are conducting tests to determine if Omicron could evade immunity by taking blood samples from vaccinated individuals and observing the performance of antibodies. The results of the study will be available in a few weeks’ time.
The WHO Technical Advisory Group for Virus Evolution is also spearheading the surveillance and review of Omicron around the world to detect the virus and any changes in its severity and impact.
What to Do in the Meantime
Despite zero Omicron cases in the U.S. and adequate efforts to prevent it from emerging in the nation, the WHO reminds individuals to observe basic health and safety protocols. These include wearing masks, physical distancing, avoiding crowded spaces, observing hand hygiene, and getting vaccinated.