New Omicron variant poses global threat


Credit: Pixabay

Lyndsey Brown, Staff Writer

COVID-19 is far from over as the new Omicron variant, a new mutated version of the original virus has surfaced. Unlike its predecessors, this variant was detected in South Africa in late November. The Alpha strand was first seen in Great Britain, the Beta strand in South Africa, the Gamma strand surfaced in Brazil and Delta first appeared in the United States. 

The main fear with this new variant is that those vaccinated, in attempts to be protected from COVID-19, will not be protected from the original vaccines. It is also suggested that this variant has a higher transmissibility compared to Delta, as it has already been detected in 38 countries as of Dec. 3. Only two days prior to this, it had only been detected in 23 countries, spreading to 15 more in only a matter of 48 hours.

Omicron has approximately 30 mutations on its spike protein, a protein used to bind to human cells, with some of these mutations being related to higher transmission and the ability to escape protection from your immune system. It has also been found that Omicron has the ability to reinfect those that have already had COVID, more so than past variants. The World Health Organization (WHO) does not know if this increased transmissibility has anything to do with an increase in mortality and is still waiting on data to make conclusions about the newest strain.

The first reported case that arrived in the United States came from a younger individual who had traveled from South Africa and had returned to the San Francisco Bay area. They were fully vaccinated, yet had still tested positive for the Omicron variant upon their arrival, but this is no reason to panic. Pfizer and Moderna are currently working to see if the Omicron strain has any impact on the efficacy of their current vaccines and have stated that it will take about two weeks to gather data. The CEO of Pfizer has also stated that if need be, a new vaccine specifically for the Omicron variant could be ready and produced by March 2022, however, the need for a new vaccine might not be necessary.

Unfortunately, the United States is still not in a good place regarding COVID-19 cases. According to the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, “Delta is still the most significant player by far we have in the U.S. and we’re not in a terribly good place right now. Following Thanksgiving, we’re seeing cases going up again, now over 100,000 new cases every day, and we didn’t want to be there. And hospitalizations are also going up, and sadly, deaths now in excess of 1,000 every day, the vast majority of those being unvaccinated people.”    

Collins encourages Americans to continue to get vaccinated and to get the recently approved booster shots. Currently, there are travel restrictions active within eight African countries as a result of the Omicron variant. While this may cause some difficulties during the holiday season, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients stated that this was a reasonable measure while they continue to evaluate the status of the variant and current cases. Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that there can be no conclusions drawn on the severity of Omicron for the next couple of weeks, as most of the data is still coming from South Africa since they have a higher volume of cases compared to the U.S.

Hospitalizations are at a high in the United States, as states such as Michigan have hit the highest number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients compared to any other point in the pandemic. With 4,638 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Michigan, the state currently has a higher per capita case rate than the average in the country. This means that for every 100,000 people, there are a reported 602 people that tested positive, while the U.S. reports an average rate of 220 cases per 100,000 people. 43 states in the European region have imposed travel restrictions, yet officials at the WHO say that this will not prevent the spread of the virus. The regional director for Europe from WHO states that these travel restrictions were too late “because Omicron is already everywhere.”

 New requirements have begun for those traveling internationally to ensure that we limit the spread of Omicron. Previously, a negative test had to be taken within three days of departure, but now, those traveling from abroad must show a negative COVID test taken within one day of departure to be allowed to board their flight into the country. Travel has been restricted between the U.S. and South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Major airlines, including Delta and American Airlines, are waiving fare differences and refunding customers for certain destinations. Countries such as Israel and Morocco have closed their borders recently to reduce the spread of the virus entirely. The C.D.C advises that Americans should not travel internationally until they are fully vaccinated and to “pay close attention to the situation at your international destination before traveling outside the United States.”

To learn more about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, consider visiting the C.D.C website where you can see a four-tier ranking system of the current COVID status of the U.S. and other countries.