UVA infectious disease expert discusses what you need to know about Omicron variant

Posted at 2:55 PM, Nov 29, 2021

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - It's being called high risk - experts say it's now in at least 14 countries.

Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant found in South Africa, has prompted fresh travel restrictions in the United States.

In just a matter of days, Omicron has become globally recognized and is rearing its head around the world. Top health officials spent Thanksgiving weekend coordinating with scientists to learn just how dangerous this variant may be.

"Those mutations could be potentially associated with increase in transmissibility from person to person or invade immune response from vaccinations," said Dr. Patrick Jackson, an infectious disease expert with the University of Virginia.

Jackson says Omicron has more than 30 mutations in its spike protein, meaning that it could be vaccine-resistant.

"We don’t know a lot yet about this variant, but concern comes from mutations we can see in the lab. But we don’t yet know for sure whether there is increase in passing it around or if vaccines can control it," he said.

Jackson says it is not yet known if it is more transmissible than the Delta variant, but it is probable that it will be highly contagious.

"One of the reasons for concern is that in South Africa they did see an increase in number of patients who have Omicron versus Delta, and that raises that it outcompetes Delta," said Jackson.

Just before the holidays, a new variant could cause chaos in the COVID-19 crisis.

"It is possible that this variant could contribute to another COVID wave," he said.

But part of that is because there are still millions of people unvaccinated, says Jackson.

"Variants that are coming up are expected because a lot of the world is not yet vaccinated," he said. "South Africa seems far away from us, but the reality is rates of vaccination in South African or Asia and other parts of the world have an impact of those living in Virginia."

Jackson's advice: Don't panic. Just stay vigilant, wear your mask, wash your hands, and if you haven't got the shot or the booster, go ahead and get that done.

Jackson says a few more weeks are needed from scientists in labs to study the variant and collect more data to see exactly how effective your vaccine will be.

Related: Biden says omicron variant ‘is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic’