A new variant first detected in South Africa has health officials around the world on high alert. Now reported in more than 20 countries so far, the Omicron variant has caused a surge in South Africa in a short period of time, increasing new COVID cases in the country from about 300 a day in mid-November to around 3,000 each day, as reported by The New York Times. At the moment, virus experts warn that the data on this variant is still very limited. White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, said it will take about two to four weeks to gather more information on Omicron’s transmissibility and severity. For now, we can only look to anecdotal data on how this variant is affecting the people it’s infecting.
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During a Dec. 1 interview on CNN’s New Day, Mvuyisi Mzukwa, the vice chair of the South African Medical Association, said that much like other variants of the virus, Omicron is having a severe impact on unvaccinated individuals.
“What we’ve noted is that the people that are being hospitalized are largely unvaccinated, about 90 percent of those are unvaccinated,” Mzukwa told CNN’s Brianna Keilar. There are about 47 million U.S. adults who are still unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But according to Mzukwa, doctors in South Africa have mostly observed cases that are less severe among those infected with the Omicron variant so far. “We’re seeing younger patients and we’re seeing milder cases of Omicron,” he said. “We have not seen that much of hospitalization, all we see is that those patients that do get admitted are patients who are not vaccinated.”
Mzukwa added, “Obviously, we’re still gathering information as to the spread of this Omicron in the country, but it is not what it is touted to be out there. There is nothing much that we see beyond what we have seen with the Delta variant.”
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Virus experts like Fauci warn that it is far too soon to put too much stock into the idea that infections from this new variant are going to cause only mild illness. “With the small number of cases, it is very difficult to know whether or not this particular variant is going to result in severe disease,” he said during a Nov. 30 White House press briefing. “We believe that it is too soon to tell of what the level of severity is … [Our South African colleagues] agreed with us that it’s too early to tell.”
Fauci also added the important context that what doctors are seeing in South Africa right now are mostly younger patients, and not older ones. Younger people are far more likely to have a mild case of COVID, regardless of the variant. “There have been … some anecdotal reports out of South Africa that the physicians—mostly private physicians—who’ve been seeing patients are seeing that they appear to be a less of a severity of illness. But … most of those are among younger individuals,” he said during the briefing.
The reason many virus experts believe that the Omicron variant might end up causing more severe disease is because of its high levels of mutations. “There’s a very unusual constellation of changes across the SARS-CoV-2 genome [with Omicron],” Fauci said during the press briefing. “This mutational profile is very different from other variants of interest and concern. And although some mutations are also found in Delta, this is not Delta; it’s something different.”
As CNBC reports, this new variant has at least 30 mutations among the spike protein compared to the original iteration of the coronavirus—which is also significantly more than the number of mutations the highly contagious Delta variant had in this area. According to Fauci, the spike protein is the “business end of the virus” which is a troublesome place to have so many changes, especially since existing COVID vaccines target this protein. “These mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion,” Fauci warned.
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