Emerging Omicron variant poses new risks

Grace Jackson, News Reporter

Editor’s note: This article has been briefly edited due to several misleading and prejudiced statements that were included in the original article. The lede previously stated that the Omicron variant “originated in South Africa.” This does not, and did not, accurately reflect scientific consensus. While the variant was first identified in South Africa and Botswana, it is not a uniquely African problem, as the original article implied. It is a global problem, with global consequences. This type of ignorant language has the potential to license violence and has no place in The Wire. 

 

The Omicron variant of COVID-19, which was first detected and reported in South Africa, has reached the United States and poses new questions for researchers. 

According to the Washington Post, the Omicron variant has reached nineteen states, with the first case in the United States reported on Dec. 1 in California. There have been three confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in Washington State. The patients were from King, Thurston and Pierce counties and are between 20-39 years old, according to a Dec. 4 news release from the Washington state Department of Health (DoH). The news release stated that state health officials do not think the cases are related.

“Little is known clinically about the Omicron variant at this time. Researchers are working to learn more about it, but it was found here quickly thanks to increased surveillance efforts; lab specialists have been looking for Omicron through PCR testing and genomic sequencing,” the news release stated. “The state also increased its lab capacity to detect genetic markers associated with new and existing variants.

Biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology professor Jim Russo explained that variants are new versions of viruses that come about through mutations to viral DNA or RNA. Each mutation can change how viruses like COVID-19 interact with the body, making it more or less harmful. 

“When we see new variants spreading from person-to-person that indicates that the mutations in that form of the virus has given the variant an advantage over other variants for replicating and transmitting from person-to-person,” Russo said in an email to The Wire. “However, just because a variant can be more readily transmitted, doesn’t mean it will be more virulent (cause more severe disease).”

As the DOH news release mentioned, researchers are still trying to determine how virulent the Omicron variant is in comparison to other variants that have caused alarm. Russo noted that based on data from South Africa and Botswana where the Omicron variant was first detected, it is highly transmissible and could evade the immune protections of COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Russo added that vaccination is still the best defence against death and infection from the Delta and Omicron variants.

“Our best option to minimize future deaths and infections, whether from Delta or Omicron, is to get more people vaccinated initially. For those who had initial doses more than six months ago of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two months ago with Johnson & Johnson, get a booster dose now. Many of our vaccines are 3+ dose series to get maximal protection, and there is no reason to think COVID would be different,” Russo said. “Omicron may be able to infect those of us who have been vaccinated and boosted. We don’t have the data yet to answer this. But the chance it causes a milder disease is higher if one is vaccinated.”

South Africa has one of the highest vaccination rates on the continent with about 25 percent of South Africans fully vaccinated. By contrast, 60 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated and 23.6 percent have received booster shots according to the CDC.

Africa’s vaccination rates have lagged behind the rest of the world’s as wealthy countries in other continents bought up vaccines far into the future, according to the New York Times.

Countries around the world have increased travel restrictions in response to the Omicron virus, with countries like Japan and Morocco completely closing their borders to foreign travelers. Whitman’s Office of Off-Campus Studies (OCS) are monitoring new travel restrictions closely, according to OCS director Susan Holme.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the 66 Whitman students who intend to study abroad in spring 2022 will be able to do so in spite of this new variant,” Holme said in an email to The Wire. “But, at the same time, we are watching the situation closely in order to advise OCS students about appropriate adjustments to their plans that may be needed, since student health and safety is a top priority for us.”