New Coronavirus Variant yet Again Changes the Pandemic Outlook


George Thomson

On Wednesday, December 1, the new “omicron” variant of coronavirus was detected in the United States for the first time. This omicron variant was named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on November 26; the US had done the same a day before the first case was identified in California. Little is known about the new variant first detected in South Africa – and while scientists rush to gather information, public officials seek to calm nervous public reaction.

Omicron has quickly spread across the globe, being detected in every continent within the span of days. Initial reports suggest that the variant could be more contagious than novel coronavirus or the widespread delta variant, and that it could also evade vaccine protections. Scientists have identified a large number of mutations in omicron – nearly 50 in total, far eclipsing that of the delta variant. However, the WHO has cautioned that current data is preliminary, and as studies continue the organization has refrained from commenting on the effectiveness of vaccines or transmissibility.

Public officials have taken a more optimistic look at the new variant, with President Biden calling it a “cause for concern, but not for panic”. The CDC and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases have initially recommended Americans to follow coronavirus restrictions already in place, including indoor masking and social distancing. On Thursday, President Biden unveiled his COVID-19 Winter Plan, a strategy that seeks to avoid lockdowns through widespread testing and vaccinations.

The omicron situation continues to rapidly spread; just days after the first identified US case, the variant has been identified in Minnesota, Colorado, and New York. The head of BioNTech, producer of the Pfizer vaccine, speculated that a new vaccine may be needed for the new variant. Meanwhile, other reports have suggested that vaccine-booster combinations across brands have been effective at increasing protection against the virus.