New SARS-CoV-2 variant, Omicron, emerges

Nov. 29, 2021

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified a new SARS-CoV-2 variant (B.1.1.529) as a variant of concern, but no cases of the variant have been detected in the United States so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Named Omicron, the variant was first reported in South Africa. In response, President Joe Biden has restricted air travel to the United States from South Africa and seven other countries.

The WHO said it decided to classify Omicron as a variant of concern because Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.

The WHO also said it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible or causes more severe illness than other variants, including Delta. However, “preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (i.e., people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited.”

Researchers are currently working to understand the impact of Omicron on current vaccines, the WHO said. As far as diagnostics, the WHO said PCR tests detect infection with Omicron, while researchers are working to understand if Omicron has an impact on other assays, such as rapid antigen tests.

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