US authorities are on high alert as the new Coronavirus variant, the Omicron mutation, has been discovered in at least five states. The Covid-19 variant had been undetected in the US before the middle of this week.
A Colorado woman who had recently travelled to southern Africa, a Hawaii resident with no recent travel history and another California resident who traveled to South Africa last month were infected by the variant, officials said.
This comes just a day after the first known US case was found in California, tests showed the variant had infected at least five people in the New York City metropolitan area plus a man from Minnesota who had attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it can thwart vaccines and whether it makes people as sick as the original strain.
Health officials in each state said there was no cause for undue alarm. But the spread of the cases, some involving people who had not been away from home recently, meant the variant was likely already circulating domestically in some parts of the country.
“We gotta assume there’s a lot more behind that and that it has been here for a meaningful amount of time,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference with Governor Kathy Hochul.
Omicron vs Delta
The high level of contagiousness, paired with very mild symptoms, may make Omicron a blessing in disguise.
Looking at the first data coming out of Southern Africa, virologist Marc van Ranst said this weekend that “if the omicron variant is less pathogenic but with greater infectivity, allowing Omicron to replace Delta, this would be very positive.”
The WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains, including Delta.
They said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.
“It is extremely important we need to closely monitor the clinical data of Omicron patients in South Africa and worldwide,” Van Ranst stressed.
The variant has more than 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
More testing is needed and experts say it can take weeks before a clear picture will emerge.
Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert.
In the Netherlands, 61 people on two flights from Cape Town to South Africa tested positive for Covid upon arrival in Amsterdam.
As countries come to terms with the new Omicron variant, work is underway to look at tweaking existing Covid vaccines.
Novavax said it has “already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of Omicron and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.
Moderna said: “Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern.
“This strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50 µg (microgram) booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.”