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The world can’t seem to get a break from this pandemic. Now it’s the new, and suspected highly-infectious variant of COVID, the Omicron virus, identified by South African scientists only last Wednesday as “a variant of concern.”

In only 72 hours, the Omicron variant spread from the African continent to Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, and Canada. Several countries, including the U.S., are moving to limit and some are blocking flights from at least eight African countries. The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, says it is only a matter of days before it is detected in the U.S.

COVID-19 Delta variant. Image courtesy of WebMD

“Do not pull back on your guard,” he warned in news interviews this morning.  He added that the U.S. could see another resurgence of COVID from this new variant if we don’t do a much better effort at vaccinations and booster shots and practicing safe social behavior such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

In the midst of the holiday season, and as a mecca for winter sports, Colorado is in the bullseye for the spread of this variant.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this is what we know so far:

On 26 November 2021, WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, named Omicron, on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).  This decision was based on the evidence presented to the TAG-VE that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.

  • We actually don’t know yet if Omicron is more transmissible than earlier variants, only that it has an unusually-high number of mutations — some 23 mutations — more than had yet been seen in a COVID variant.
  • We don’t know if infections by the Omicron variant will result in more severe disease than say the Delta. Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron. All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, so prevention is key.
  • We don’t know if prior SARS-CoV-2 infection (COVID) can protect against reinfection with this new variant. Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (i.e., people who have previously had COVID-19).
  • We don’t yet know if the current booster vaccines can protect people against this new Omicron strain.
  • We do know that current PCR testing can detect this new Omicron strain also. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.
  • We do know that Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.

It may take two to three months for the scientists to learn enough about this new variant to determine the answers to the unknowns. Public health experts also tell us another fact. That the way that the virus is mutating, there are now two certainties: either people will get vaccinated, including  booster vaccines, or they will get COVID – perhaps more than once.  Some people will get mild or moderate cases. Others will die.

As the world deals with this next chapter, it might be good to think about the millions of people in the poorer countries of the world who still don’t have access to the vaccines that others in our own country are refusing to take. Politics is not public health. It is politics.