RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has been identified and confirmed in California and in Minnesota, as of 1 p.m. ET on Thursday. Since the variant emerged, global stock markets have been volatile amid uncertainty due to the emergence of the new variant and ongoing disruptions to the global supply chain during a holiday shopping season in the United States.
“There are likely other Omicron cases in the US that have not yet been detected,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist at RTI International, in a conversation with WRAL TechWire about the emergence of the new Omicron variant and what we know, right now.
The World Health Organization (WHO) classified a new variant, B.1.1.529, as a “Variant of Concern” and named it Omicron on Nov. 26, and the United States classified the variant as a “Variant of Concern” on Nov. 30, according to a statement from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“CDC has been actively monitoring and preparing for this variant, and we will continue to work diligently with other U.S. and global public health and industry partners to learn more,” the statement reads. According to the CDC, the Delta variant remains the predominant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in the United States.
A transcript of our conversation with Dr. MacDonald follows, and has been lightly edited for clarity.
WRAL TechWire (TW): Dr. MacDonald, what do we know, right now, about the Omicron variant?
Dr. Pia MacDonald, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist at RTI International (Dr. MacDonald): We do not yet know what the transmission rate is for Omicron. We do not yet know how it compares with the transmission of the Delta variant. What we do know is that the Omicron variant has become the dominant variant in South Africa in only a few weeks, and the number of cases has increased very quickly, suggesting that its highly contagious, maybe more than earlier variants.
We know that many people in South Africa, an estimated 80-90%, had already been infected with earlier variants of SARS-CoV-2 and approximately 23% of the population had been vaccinated. Even with this high percentage of people with some level of immunity, the virus has spread quickly, suggesting that prior infection may not be enough to avoid getting infected and potentially ill from Omicron.
TW: What’s have we learned from the science behind studying what is different in this variant – and how may that impact the variant’s ability to spread?
Dr. MacDonald: There are more mutations, over 50, on this variant than we have seen before on other variants. Based on the large number and location of the mutations, there is concern that this variant may be more contagious and may be able to evade the immune system of previously infected or vaccinated people. Omicron has become the dominant variant in South Africa within a few weeks, and the number of cases is growing quickly each day.
In South Africa, herd immunity is estimated at 80-90 percent of the population, and even with this high level, the Omicron variant has rapidly infected many people. This means that prior infection with earlier variants may not prevent infection and illness from Omicron.
TW: Are the current vaccines as effective against this variant, or do we not yet know?
Dr. MacDonald: We will know more in the next weeks and months about how effective the vaccines will be preventing severe illness and death from Omicron. At this time, we do not have enough information to know for sure.
TW: Is this variant more deadly than other variants, or do we not yet know?
Dr. MacDonald: There is not enough information yet to determine if Omicron is more deadly than earlier variants. It’s also too early to know if prior infection with other variants protects people from developing severe illness. We will know this in the coming weeks and months.
TW: How might holiday travel – particularly air travel – change as a result, whether from new federal policy regarding travel, or change in consumer behavior – did we see any change when Delta emerged?
Dr. MacDonald: Holiday travel could be impacted by countries banning foreigners and/or requiring strict quarantine upon arrival. Similarly, travel plans can be foiled based on the quickly changing policies by countries.
TW: What can individuals do to prevent against this variant – anything different from existing strains of the virus?
Dr. MacDonald: Vaccines remain critical to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19. Now is the time to get vaccinated for those individuals not yet vaccinated, and now is the time to get a booster for those previously vaccinated. Wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces, increasing air ventilation indoors, frequent testing, staying home when sick, and hand washing, are all still important things we can do to protect ourselves and our communities.
We have many public health and clinical interventions now, more than a year ago, to combat the pandemic and disease. Vaccine manufactures can adapt existing mRNA vaccines to protect against Omicron relatively quickly.
The speed at which Omicron was detected and reported to the global community speaks volumes about the importance of increased testing and sequencing near and far. Global efforts to quickly detect new variants remain paramount for global health security.