MIAMI — While much of the United States celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, global health experts were quickly sharing information about a new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.
10 Tampa Bay reached out to Dr. Aileen Marty of Florida International University. Marty has spent more than a decade immersed in the South African public health arena ever since the 2010 FIFA World Cup in which she worked with the World Health Organization.
Why South Africa?
Marty says it's not all that surprising that the new variant, called omicron, was discovered in South Africa adding, "They have state-of-the-art equipment and state-of-the-art biosafety level laboratories there where they have full capacity to identify completely new viral pathogens."
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, the former chair of the South Africa Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 backed up Marty's assessment in an interview Friday saying, "We've put in place the systems of surveillance to identify a new variant as quickly as possible. And so we've been fortunate in this case, we've identified it quite early."
For perspective, the United States doesn't have nearly as robust a variant surveillance program like other countries.
Scientists determine the prevalence of a particular variant through genomics testing and DNA sequencing but according to Dr. Jill Roberts, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, the U.S. is only running genomics on about 10 percent of positive cases.
Roberts says this is due to a lack of resources such as money, equipment and staffing to run genomics on more specimens.
Marty says South Africa's low vaccine rate of roughly 24 percent of the population leaves a lot of room for the virus to spread and grow — another reason the variant could have originated there. As of the time of this article, 59 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated with 74 percent of Americans age five and older having at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How contagious is the omicron variant?
Although it's hard to say for sure just yet, health officials are concerned. Initial research shows this variant will spread rapidly.
"There’s every evidence that this is going to be just as transmissible as delta and what we worry about and have been worrying about for a long time is that it does have mutations that could make it an escape variant," Marty said.
Abdool Karim said, "We know very little about this variant in terms of its behavior and how it's going to cause disease. But we can make some extrapolations based on the mutations we are seeing, and it has to be said that those are just extrapolations. They are not fact. But if you look at this particular variant, it has characteristics and it has mutations of all the other four variants of concern."
What's an "escape variant"?
Marty says an "escape variant" is a variant of the original COVID-19 virus that is resistant to antibodies produced through vaccines, natural infection and treatments such as monoclonal infusions.
What's most concerning?
The omicron variant has the potential for the one-two punch. One being highly transmissible (like delta) and two being more resistant to prior antibodies (like beta).
Keep in mind, beta didn't get a lot of attention because it wasn't as contagious as delta and fizzled out.
"This new variant takes the worst of beta and the worst of delta, and it’s been recombined in that way," Marty said.
Additionally, COVID is never just about COVID. If a variant starts exponentially spreading, it's a matter of time before hospitals are overrun and other parts of our lives are interrupted.
What should we do?
By now, you know the drill. Experts are screaming it from rooftops on every continent. Do all the things: Vaccines, masks, distance, ventilation, repeat.
Marty called this the "layering of protections."