New COVID-19 Variant Emerges in South Africa

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

A new variant of COVID-19 was identified on Nov. 25 and named Omicron. First discovered in South Africa, it has now been found in over 20 countries, including the United States. We have had one case from a traveler in California who had come back from South Africa. They are currently in isolation and their mild symptoms are improving. Aggressive contact tracing is underway to prevent the spread of the variant. There have been no reported cases of local transmission outside of the originating country. All non-originating countries have only found the variant in travelers coming from South Africa. The New York Times has a tracker for Omicron and other variants available here. The World Health Organization has labeled Omicron as a VOC, or variant of concern as of Nov. 26.

The Omicron variant has over 30 mutations in its spike protein and about 50 mutations in total that have not been seen before in this combination. The spike protein is the main target of antibodies that our immune systems produce to fight COVID-19. All these variants might allow the virus to avoid antibodies produced by previous illness or vaccination. Preliminary evidence suggests that this new variant has a higher risk of infection than other variants. Doctors are worried current vaccinations will not be entirely effective against Omicron because of these spike mutations.

Early signs show Omicron may only cause mild illness. However, this observation was made off of cases in South Africa’s young people. Young people are less likely to become severely ill with COVID-19. There is not enough data to say anything for sure. However, health officials are advising individuals to continue getting vaccinated. If you are already vaccinated, get your booster shot as soon as possible. Dr. Anthony Fauci recommends getting a booster shot six months after your second dosage of Pfizer/Moderna, and two months after J&J.