WHO Says Omicron Variant Has Mutations That Are ‘Concerning’

WASHINGTON, D.C. — While the omicron variant of the coronavirus is “most definitely” already in the United States, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday that the federal government is bettered positioned to deal with a surge than it was a year ago.

Gottlieb addressed the issue in an interview on the CBS news program, “Face the Nation.”

“It’s almost definitely here already, just looking at the number of cases coming off planes this weekend,” he said. “It’s almost a certainty that there have been cases that have gotten into the United States.”

CDC officials added that the early detection of the variant in South Africa enabled health officials to put preventive measures in place faster than it was able to do with the delta variant.

“We are grateful to the South African government and its scientists who have openly communicated with the global scientific community and continue to share information about this variant with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC,” said the CDC in a news release. “We are working with other U.S. and global public health and industry partners to learn more about this variant, as we continue to monitor its path.”

The variant was first reported to the World Health Organization on Wednesday by South African health officials after identifying a case there. Since then, cases have been reported in Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong and Britain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The news prompted President Joe Biden to announce Friday that he is imposing travel restrictions on eight countries beginning Monday in an effort to control the spread in the U.S.

In an update on the omicron variant released Sunday, the World Health Organization said “this variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning.”

WHO said the omicron variant (variant B.1.1.529) “has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.”

WHO said it is not yet clear whether omicron is more easily spread from person to person than other variants, including delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of omicron or other factors.

Nor is the severity of omicron known, said WHO.

“It is not yet clear whether infection with omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including delta. Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with omicron,” WHO said.

There currently is no information indicating that symptoms associated with omicron differ from those of other variants.

“Understanding the level of severity of the omicron variant will take days to several weeks,” WHO said, adding, “all variants of COVID-19, including the delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.”

Both WHO and the CDC said vaccines are critical to reducing severe symptoms and death, and the current vaccines being used will protect people against the omicron variant. The CDC recommends that all children age 5 and up and all adults be vaccinated.

WHO also urged people around the world to continue prevention strategies such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, washing hands frequently and physically distancing from others.

“We know what it takes to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the CDC said.

According to the CDC, as of Nov. 24, 61.7 percent (231,367,686 people) of Americans have been fully vaccinated and 74.1 percent age 5 and up have received at least a first vaccination.

However, there’s still a huge racial divide among those vaccinated.

Like other variants of the coronavirus, symptoms of the omicron variant include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

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