The California Department of Public Health said it is aware of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant but that there are no known cases involving this variant in California at this time.
"We continue to monitor the situation carefully," the department said in an email.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Friday there is "no indication" Omicron is in the U.S. right now. Curative, a COVID-19 test provider in more than 40 states, noted that while it does have the ability to sequence COVID-19 tests for research use, so far no samples sequenced by Curative have been shown to contain the Omicron variant.
In addition to South Africa, cases of the variant have been reported so far in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, and Israel.
Friday, World Health Organization leaders labeled the Omicron COVID-19 variant as a "variant of concern." A WHO advisory group said initial evidence "suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant" and the number of COVID-19 cases from this variant "appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa."
Concerns about this new variant have led several countries, including the U.S., to restrict travelers from several countries in Southern Africa.
What Public Health Experts Are Saying
The WHO said this new variant was first reported to them on November 24.
Public health experts NBC Bay Area spoke with said they had only learned about this variant in the past day or two.
Infectious disease expert Dr. John Swartzberg, Professor Emeritus at U.C. Berkeley's School of Public Health, said he learned of the variant just after Thanksgiving.
"The first emotion I had was disappointment," Swartzberg said.
"It's important for people to realize these new variants have physical structures that suggest they might not respond to the immunity we got from the vaccines," he noted.
However, he emphasized that this news is cause for concern, not panic.
“Whether or not this variant is going to be as bad as Delta, worse than Delta or just a flash in the pan of no great significance, nobody knows at this point,” he added.
We don't know yet if existing COVID-19 vaccines will protect the public from Omicron. However, Swartzberg believes those who were already vaccinated will likely have at least some protection against this new variant.
He doesn't think it's likely that we will need to create new vaccines to address Omicron, but if that happens Swartzberg is encouraged knowing we already have the infrastructure to create the vaccines needed.
"We have the ability to within a very short period of time, a matter of weeks, to produce a vaccine that will be able to be very effective against this new variant," he said.
In Marin County, Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis noted that over the next few days his department will be "asking people who may have traveled into southern Africa where it seems that Omicron was most active, and make sure that we’re sampling them so we can detect any variants locally."
In Willis' view, it's too early for Bay Area residents to know how this variant may impact their future plans, he encouraged the public to wait for more guidance from global health leaders in the coming days.
Delta Variant Remains
The California Department of Public Health reported in November that of all the samples from positive COVID-19 test results in the state, 99.7% were from Delta variant cases.
Willis noted that “the most important threat to us right now in the Bay Area remains the Delta variant.”
Willis urged the public to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they haven't already to both protect themselves from the Delta variant or other variants that could come along.
He explained that a quarter of all positive COVID-19 tests in Marin County get sent to a lab for whole-genome sequencing to test genetic material for variants. In the past two months, Willis said every single one of the test results sequenced from Marin County was shown to be a Delta variant case.
"So I’m confident that if we do see the emergence of the Omicron variant that we will be able to actually detect that early on," Willis added. "We need to actually make sure that laboratory infrastructure is in place.”
Whether addressing the Delta variant or a potential threat from the Omicron variant, Willis added that the solutions will remain the same.
“Vaccines are by far the most important thing we can do, and then everyday behaviors we’ve adopted over the last year and a half,” he said.