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State health officials brace for arrival of new omicron variant

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 9:51 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 29, 2021 at 10:26 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Scientists and health officials are sounding a cautious alarm over the latest COVID-19 variant, omicron.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” President Joe Biden said at a press conference Monday at the White House.

The new strain, first discovered by researchers in South Africa, has prompted the Biden administration to restrict travel from several countries in the region.

“It gives us time. It gives us time to take more actions,” Biden said.

New cases have been detected in Canada and several countries in Europe. Health leaders say the new variant may already be in the United States.

“Given the way that people travel and cross international borders nowadays, it’s almost certainly everywhere,” said Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris.

Scientists and officials are learning more every day about the new omicron variant. Harris said it could take weeks before we know how transmissible it is and if it causes severe illness.

“We’re concerned about it because we just don’t know how easily it spreads or how sick it can make people or if the vaccines work yet. But that’s not a reason to panic. That’s just the information that we don’t know about. We’re working to try to get those answers,” Harris said.

The good news is that so far, research shows infections from the omicron variant have produced mild symptoms. As of Monday, it appears most of the people infected by the variant were not fully vaccinated.

What is concerning, however, is that experts say the new variant shows signs of mutating easily, which could make it more transmissible and potentially able to evade immunity, even from vaccines.

“In a state like Alabama where half the state still hasn’t decided to be vaccinated, it’s always a concern that you may have a more transmissible variant,” Harris said.

The omicron variant was the quickest to be labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization because of its seemingly fast spread in South Africa and its many troubling mutations.

Vaccine-maker Moderna’s chief medical officer told CNN that the omicron variant has at least 50 mutations, including 30 on the key spike protein, which allows the virus to enter human cells.

“Preliminary studies are that it may be easier to transmit than delta,” Harris said. “Remember delta is several times easier to transmit than the original strain.”

Harris said right now over 99% of COVID-19 cases in Alabama are the delta variant. He said if omicron proves to spread even faster than delta, then “it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the predominant variant.”

Health officials still don’t know if the currently approved vaccines protect against omicron, but there is reason to believe that the shots will provide some level of protection.

“It’s certainly possible that we may need a new vaccine product at some point, but right now we just don’t know, and hopefully we don’t need one yet,” Harris said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now strengthening its recommendation, wanting everyone 18 years and older to receive their booster shot.

The drug companies that made the currently approved vaccines are already working on new versions of the shots that could be needed to protect against the new omicron variant. The new version would not be available until sometime in 2022 if it is needed.

The president again urged Americans to get vaccinated and get their booster shots, saying it is the best protection against this new variant, as well as any other variants.

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