Omicron could be more contagious than Delta, but experts say it’s unlikely to be completely resistant to vaccines; research needed

By Meryl KornfieldAdela Suliman, Christine Armario and María Luisa Paúl
The Washington Post

A new variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is raising concern around the world.

South Africa confirmed Thursday that it had detected a variant with many mutations that could make it more transmissible than the Delta variant, and adept at evading the body’s immune defenses. On Friday, the World Health Organization labeled it a “variant of concern” and gave it a Greek letter designation: Omicron.

Several countries, including the United States, have since restricted travel from southern Africa while epidemiologists race to learn more. Cases have been identified in nearly a dozen nations, most but not all tied to recent travel to Africa.

There is too little research to draw conclusions, with experts urging caution but not panic. Studies are underway to examine how vaccines hold up against the new variant, with some experts expressing initial optimism that they will offer protection. Even if the variant limits the effectiveness of vaccines, it probably will not completely subvert the protections that vaccines provide, experts say.

Vaccine makers are working to understand how well their vaccines can control Omicron, A Pfizer spokesperson said in a statement, “In the event that vaccine-escape variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Omicron has not been detected in the United States, but public-health experts say there is a high probability that the new variant is already spreading in a number of countries beyond those where cases have been detected.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, told ABC News’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that the variant’s arrival in the United States is essentially unavoidable.

“When you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably, it will be here. The question is: Will we be prepared for it?” Fauci said.  Read more here.

Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University said on PBS, “There are a lot of features here that concern me and many of us, but we really need more information.” He said the “fast takeoff” of the virus suggests that it may be more contagious, and the numerous mutations raise concern about vaccine effectiveness.

But he added, “This pandemic doesn’t end until most of the world is vaccinated.”

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