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Studies are underway in test tubes and animals to determine whether the new Omicron variant can slip past the immune protection of vaccination or a previous infection.
Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the results from tests of disabled and live Omicron viruses mixed with the serum —the clear part of the blood — of vaccinated or previously infected individuals should be ready next week.
The results of those tests should give us a better idea about how well protected Americans may be against the new threat of this highly mutated variant.
Fauci, speaking today at a briefing of the White House COVID Response team, says data show the Omicron variant has swiftly become the main cause of new COVID-19 infections in South Africa.
“Strongly suggesting a dominant capability of that variant over others,” he said.
The situation in South Africa is not exactly analogous to the United States. South Africa has not vaccinated as many people as the US. Even given these differences, Fauci says the picture in South Africa says a lot about Omicron’s runaway spread and its potential to cause new cases to spike in the United States.
Those new cases may not be as serious as we’ve seen with Alpha or Delta. Early data on severity are encouraging.
“It’s too early to be able to determine the precise severity of disease, but inklings that we are getting, it appears with the cases we are seeing we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease,” he said.
Fauci said the hospitalization rate for Omicron cases seems to be lower than it has been under previous variants, and patients who do end up in the hospital seem to be less likely to need oxygen.
But Fauci cautioned that these data could be biased because the earliest cases in South Africa have been reported in younger people, who tend to have less serious cases anyway because of their age.
“Hopefully, in the next few weeks we’ll get a much clearer picture,” he said.
Rochelle Walensky, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said teams working to track the spread of Omicron after the large Anime 2021 conference in New York City had been able to contact about 35,000 of the 53,000 people who were estimated to be in attendance.
The second confirmed Omicron case in the US was in a Minnesota man who attended the conference.
“Data from this investigation will likely provide some of the earliest looks in this country of the transmissibility of this variant,” she said.
In the meantime, Omicron isn’t waiting. So far it has made an appearance in 17 states and more than 50 countries around the world.
White House COVID-19 Response Team Briefing, Dec. 7, 2021
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