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COVID-19 Update: Omicron Variant

Nov. 29, 2021

The World Health Organization warned that the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, could fuel surges with “severe consequences” amid signs that it makes Covid-19 more transmissible.

Omicron’s mutations may make it easier for the virus to evade existing immunity, the WHO said in a technical briefing document for its members.

The variant was first detected earlier this month. It’s characterized by some 30 or more genetic changes, half of which are in the part of the spike protein used to bind to human ACE-2, which is the enzyme the coronavirus targets to enter cells and cause an infection. Mutations there can make the spike protein less recognizable to the antibodies produced in response to vaccination or natural infection.

The variant’s genome contains “some concerning elements,” said Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Their effect on vaccine effectiveness should be better known in the next couple of weeks, he said. 

So far, there have been no reported deaths linked to the omicron variant. Meanwhile, many countries including the U.S. have reimposed some travel restrictions in an effort to stem the spread of the new variant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to announce any omicron cases in the U.S., though the White House chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that he believes it’s inevitable at some point.

Scientists are currently racing to determine if the existing vaccines provide adequate protection against the Omicron variant. In the case they don’t, President Biden said the US will act fast to update its vaccine supplies.

“In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” he said.