A virologist from San Diego said on Monday that it's too early to tell what kind of impact the new coronavirus variant omicron will have on the world.
“Early reports say that people who now have this variant omicron have less symptoms than people who had delta or even alpha before,” said Dr. Davey Smith, a virologist and head of the division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UC San Diego. “Right now, I think we just say its serious and we keep looking at it.”
The omicron variant, named after a letter in the Greek alphabet, is a variant believed to have originated in South Africa that scientists are now hunting for around the world. Omicron has many more mutations in its spike protein than the delta variant, Smith said, and, as a result, has more ways to get into human cells.
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“Why does this virus have so many different mutations than this other one? Why is it all this particular protein of the virus? And how come we are now seeing it in more than just one or two people?”
The coronavirus seems to have evolved in an effort to evade an immune-system response.
“It’s remodeling the kitchen," Smith said. "It’s remodeling the living room, and those little remodelings — so it learns how to live better at its new home — are mutations,” Smith said.
Smith believes it’s possible that what’s called “selection bias” is causing those early reports of milder symptoms. The variant might not have reached the most vulnerable people yet.
“The people who are getting infected first are the younger group and, perhaps, the vaccinated," Smith said, "and they are going to have lower symptoms, anyway, but they’re the ones that are most likely to spread it. Once it starts hitting the more higher-risk populations where people we’ve known have had problems with COVID in the past, that’s where we might see the worsening of symptoms.”
While there have not been any confirmed reports of cases in the U.S. so far, omicron is possibly here already.
“People get on planes without knowing it and get off planes in other communities, especially in heavy travel times — the Monday after Thanksgiving — so it’s coming if it’s not already here,” Smith said.
With vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus, however, Smith is hopeful
“I do feel a lot better about these holidays than I felt about last year’s holidays,” Smith said.
Scientists will continue to survey infections, testing and sequencing infections to track the spread and detect any other variants. Smith said that the only way to stop the spread of the infections is to get vaccines to people everywhere, denying hosts to the variants and its ability to generate variants.
The fewer pathways, the fewer variants.