The new omicron variant of the coronavirus that is fueling a spike in cases internationally could already be in the United States, though if it is, it remains undetected, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert said Saturday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview with TODAY that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the variant is already in the U.S., given its potentially higher transmissibility rate than past known variants.
“I would not be surprised if it is. We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said.
The omicron variant has started to cause concern for world leaders and health experts, especially after COVID-19 cases and deaths have started to decline over the past few months as vaccination rates seemingly increased.
Researchers said the variant has a high number of mutations --about 30-- in the coronavirus’ spike protein, according to the Associated Press. This affects how easily the virus can spread to others.
However, it’s still unknown if the variant can cause more severe disease or if it can bypass the vaccines or other treatments. AP reports that it could take several weeks before we have more information.
Fauci said despite the uncertainty surrounding the new variant, it’s important for precautions to be taken now.
“It will likely be more transmissible. We don’t know that yet, but you have to be careful and assume that that’s the case,” Fauci told TODAY. “It also has a bunch of mutations that would suggest it could evade the protection, for example, of monoclonal antibodies and perhaps even convalescent plasma for people who’ve been infected and recovered and possibly vaccine. These are all maybes...”
In the meantime, Fauci is urging people to remain vigilant, abide by health protocols and get the vaccine or booster shots.
“It is absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated and that vaccinated people get boosters,” Fauci said. “We know now clearly that when you get a booster shot ... you dramatically increase that level of protection.”
It’s unclear where omicron originated, but scientists in South Africa found the variant was causing an uptick in infections in Gauteng. Overall, South Africa saw the number of new daily COVID-19 cases rise from just over 200 new cases per day to 2,465 on Thursday.
The variant has also been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel as of yet, according to The Associated Press.
You can watch the full interview with Fauci here.