SALT LAKE CITY — On Monday, President Joe Biden said the new COVID-19 variant is cause for concern but not panic. The omicron variant has not been detected in the United States yet, but it has 10 key mutations. By comparison, the delta variant has two.
“We don’t know exactly where it originated, but we do know that it has a lot of mutations,” said Dr. Cameron Webb, the White House COVID Taskforce Senior Advisor for Equity.
Discovered just last week in South Africa, doctors and scientists are looking to see if it is more contagious or stronger, and if it can evade COVID-19 vaccines.
“We are certainly not panicking, but we’ve learned enough from this pandemic in the last 20 months not to take anything lightly,” Webb told FOX 13.
Cases containing the variant have been found in more than a dozen countries, including Canada.
“It is probably a given that it will soon be here, if it isn’t already circulating in the United States,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, the chief doctor at University of Utah Health's Division of Infectious Diseases.
What makes the omicron variant so concerning? An extremely large number of mutations involving the spike protein. That specific protein allows the virus to infect cells.
The mutations could mean omicron is more contagious and could even bypass the antibodies created by the COVID-19 vaccines.
“That’s the protein that the vaccine is directed against. Any changes could lead to decreased efficacy of the vaccine,” Dr. Swaminathan said.
Right now, the Utah Department of Health sequences 10 percent of the positive tests, and nearly all are the delta variant.
The possibility of omicron in Utah could further strain hospitals.
“It is really concerning from the hospital aspect if we do get an even more transmissible, even more severe virus — it is really going to overwhelm our healthcare system,” said Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen.
While the variant could change, doctors say the way to fight COVID-19 is the same: get fully vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in public and get tested if you have symptoms.