Nov 27 Reuters -- The new Omicron coronaviruses variant - first identified in South Africa, but also detected in Europe and Asia - is raising concern worldwide, given the number of mutations that could help it spread or even evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.
The variant prompted countries to announce new travel restrictions on Friday and sent drugmakers scrambling to see if their COVID 19 vaccines are protective.
The B was classified by the World Health Organization on Friday. As a SARS-CoV variant of concern, the 529 variant, or Omicron, said it may spread more quickly than other forms of coronaviruses.
The Delta variant remains dominant in the United States, accounting for 99.9% of U.S. cases, and it is not yet clear whether Omicron will be able to replace Delta, said Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director, infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The new variant has over 30 mutations in the part of the virus that current vaccines target. It is suspected of causing a spike in new infections in South Africa.
Omicron's mutations are likely to render certain COVID 19 treatments - including some manufactured antibodies -- ineffective, said Dr. David Ho, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University.
Experimental antiviral pills such as Pfizer Inc's Paxlovid and Merck Co Inc's molnupiravir target parts of the virus that are not changed in Omicron may become even more important if vaccine-induced and natural immunity is threatened.
Scientists say it could be several more weeks before they can determine the type of disease caused by the variant, determine how contagious it is and determine how far it has already spread.
Other variants of concern, including Beta, which was first detected in South Africa, were eventually replaced by Delta.
Will people who have previously been infected with the coronavirus be immune from infection with Omicron?
Experts don't know if Omicron will cause more or less severe COVID - 19 compared to other coronavirus strains.
Omicron hasn't been identified in the United States, but it's likely that it is already here, scientists said.
Even without the new variant, U.S. COVID 19 rates have gone up in recent weeks, mainly in northern states, as people move indoors to avoid winter weather.
Some countries have stopped traveling from southern Africa. Snyder, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that individual should assess their vulnerability to COVID and tolerance for risk as they make travel decisions for the winter holidays, beyond government restrictions.
He and others said that vaccination should remain a priority despite questions about effectiveness against Omicron, because it is likely that they still remain protective to a certain extent. Everyone should wear masks, avoid crowds, ventilate rooms, and wash hands.
"We have all the tools that will work against any variant," said Eric Topol, director of Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.