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How worried should we be about the Omicron variant?

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The brand new Omicron coronavirus variant – recognized first in South Africa, but in addition detected in Europe and Asia – is elevating concern worldwide given the variety of mutations, which could assist it unfold and even evade antibodies from prior an infection or vaccination.

Information of the variant prompted international locations to announce new journey restrictions on Friday and despatched drugmakers scrambling to see if their COVID-19 vaccines stay protecting.

WHY ARE SCIENTISTS WORRIED?

The World Well being Group on Friday categorized the B.1.1.529 variant, or Omicron, as a SARS-CoV-2 “variant of concern,” saying it could unfold extra rapidly than different types of coronavirus.

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The Delta variant stays dominant worldwide, accounting for 99.9% of U.S. instances, and it’s not but clear whether or not Omicron will be capable of displace Delta, mentioned Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director, an infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at College of Pittsburgh Medical Middle.

However the brand new variant has over 30 mutations within the a part of the virus that present vaccines goal. It’s also suspected of driving a spike in new infections in South Africa.

Omicron’s mutations are prone to render sure COVID-19 therapies – together with some manufactured antibodies – ineffective, mentioned Dr. David Ho, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia College.

Experimental antiviral drugs – corresponding to Pfizer Inc’s Paxlovid and Merck & Co Inc’s molnupiravir – goal elements of the virus that aren’t modified in Omicron, and these medicine may turn out to be much more essential if vaccine-induced and pure immunity are threatened.

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THE UNKNOWNS

Scientists say it may very well be a number of extra weeks earlier than they will outline the kind of illness brought on by the variant, decide how contagious it’s and establish how far it has already unfold.

Some notice that different variants of concern, together with Beta, which was additionally first detected in South Africa, have been in the end changed by Delta.

However the largest query stays whether or not safety from COVID-19 vaccines – practically 8 billion doses have been administered globally – will maintain up. And, will folks beforehand contaminated with the coronavirus be immune from an infection with Omicron?

Consultants additionally don’t but know whether or not Omicron will trigger roughly extreme COVID-19 in comparison with different coronavirus strains.

BEST RESPONSE?

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Omicron has not but been recognized in america, however it’s probably already right here, scientists mentioned.

Even with out the brand new variant, U.S. COVID-19 charges have elevated in current weeks, primarily in northern states, as folks transfer indoors to keep away from winter climate.

Some international locations have moved to restrict journey from southern Africa. Past authorities restrictions, people ought to nonetheless assess their very own vulnerability to COVID and tolerance for threat as they make journey choices for the winter holidays, Snyder from College of Pittsburgh Medical Middle mentioned.

He and others mentioned vaccination ought to stay a precedence regardless of questions on effectiveness in opposition to Omicron, as a result of it’s probably that they nonetheless stay protecting to a sure extent. Everybody must also proceed to put on masks, keep away from crowds, ventilate rooms, and wash palms.

“Now we have all these instruments that can work in opposition to any variant,” mentioned Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Analysis Translational Institute in La Jolla, California. (Reporting by Deena Beasley; Modifying by Sam Holmes)

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