Omicron variant may already be in U.S., Fauci says

Jessica Schladebeck
New York Daily News (TNS)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar before receiving his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health on Dec. 22, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Patrick Semansky/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

The omicron variant, a new strain of COVID-19 triggering panic worldwide, could already be in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Saturday that while there is no indication the mutated virus has made its way over from South Africa, where it was initially detected earlier this week, citizens should take special care and avoid letting their guards down.

When asked whether he believed omicron has already arrived in the United States, Fauci said he “would not be surprised” if it has.

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“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 during an interview on the “Today” show on Saturday.

South Africa’s health minister on Thursday announced the discovery of the variant, which appears to be spreading rapidly across parts of the country. Less than 24 hours later, the World Health Organization designated it as a “variant of concern,” naming it omicron during an emergency meeting held Friday.

While much about omicron is still a mystery, health experts have suggested the latest COVID strain could prove more transmissible and render vaccines less effective.

According to South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira, the variant contains more than 30 mutations to the spike protein, or the part of the virus that infects healthy cells. Many of those mutations have been linked to increased antibody resistance, which could alter how the virus interacts with treatments and shots as well as make it more contagious.

So far, omicron has been found in multiple countries, including Israel and Belgium. And on Saturday, British Health Minister Sajid Javid confirmed two linked cases of the variant have been detected in Britain.

Others countries, including the United States and the 27-nation European Union, have since moved to suspend all travel from South Africa.

The White House on Friday announced restrictions for travelers from eight African countries slated to go into effect on Monday.

Fauci said travel bans are simply a way of buying time given the threat of the virus.

“The issue of blocking travel from a given country is to just give us time to assess it better,” he said. “That’s the reason for doing that, not any reason to panic, but we want to give us some time to really fill in the blanks of what we don’t know right now.”