How concerned should we be?
On November 24, 2021 a new COVID-19 variant was identified from a test in South Africa. The appearance of this variant shows us that we must remain vigilant in protecting ourselves until we can get this pandemic under control.
COVID-19 variants are different strains of the disease that have developed from changes to the virus’ genetic makeup (its DNA) through the virus being spread and making copies of itself inside of humans. As more and more copies are made, the chance increases that random mistakes in the copying process can lead to changes in the virus DNA, which may result in it being a new and different strain.
These random chances for changes in the virus can lead to changes in how well the virus can infect and spread between humans and how severe a disease it can cause. If these changes make the virus easier to kill or harder to spread, then this new strain may never be found. If on the other hand these changes make the virus easier to spread and harder to kill, then this new strain will survive.
The World Health Organization has named this variant “omicron,” the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. Greek letters are used to name the different COVID-19 variants in order to organize them.
This way of naming variants is used to avoid associating variants with the country or area where they were found, which can lead to discrimination or stigma against people from those areas. Using these Greek letters as names also is easier than ordinary people (non-scientists) having to remember the scientific names of these variants, such as omicron’s scientific name of B.1.1.529.
The recent finding of a new COVID-19 variant is a real concern. The changes to the COVID-19 virus found in this strain show many changes that look likely for this new variant to have higher rates of reinfection with the COVID-19 virus.
So far, the data on new cases agrees with this finding, showing that this new variant can avoid the immunity gained from prior infection. This new variant has been found in several countries around the world, as well as in more than 17 states in the U.S. when this article was written.
In general, this new variant is spreading very rapidly, even faster than the delta variant that is most common in the United States and Minnesota for the past several months. Many of the cases in the U.S. are related to recent travel around the U.S. and to other countries.
Because of how quickly this virus is spreading, the United States has new travel restrictions from several southern African countries in place as of December 6th. Even though we cannot predict where the virus will continue to be found, it seems likely that additional travel restrictions may be put in place in the near future.
The hard part about new restrictions in the United States and in Minnesota is that restrictions around the country were lifted during the past summer (2021) when COVID rates were lower as vaccines became more available. Here in the U.S. we are lucky to have vaccines available very easily.
Most other countries still do not have as much access to vaccines as we have here. This means that even though vaccination rates are high here in the U.S., until we can make sure the rest of the world is vaccinated, the virus will continue to spread and change.
Right now, there is not enough information to know how well vaccines will protect us against this new omicron variant. Scientists (including myself) believe the vaccines available right now still provide the best available protection in addition to keeping distance from others, wearing masks, and limiting activity outside of the home.
With this new variant quickly spreading, companies that make vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, are already working on vaccines designed to stop the omicron variant. This means that we may find ourselves needing a new vaccine soon.
Many of us have been feeling “COVID fatigue” over the past couple of years. The reopening of schools and businesses has felt like life had returned to normal a bit. The omicron variant is showing us that we must continue to be careful about this pandemic so we can get it under control.
This means that if you have not gotten a vaccine or a booster, now is a great time to do so. It also means that you should try to limit gathering indoors with others that do not live with you. If you must get together with others, wear a mask and keep the gathering short. We all must do our part to limit how much this virus can keep affecting our communities.
Dr. Zeke McKinney grew up and lives in Minneapolis. He practices clinical occupational and environmental medicine (OEM) in St. Louis Park, MN, and he is one of few clinicians in Minnesota who evaluates work and community-related environmental toxicologic exposures. He is also a researcher for the HealthPartners Institute, including on a COVID-19 vaccine trial, and in helping to set up a barbershop vaccine clinic in North Minneapolis. He focuses on health equity and environmental justice for all communities.