As scientists wait for more data on the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, experts in Florida say it’s too early to panic about this new strain.
“This is something we need to watch out for, but not something that I think people need to panic about or change their plans for right now,” said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, professor emeritus of health at the University of Florida of. South.
The variant, believed to have originated in Africa, has not yet been detected in the United States.
Unnasch said there is some evidence that this strain is more transmissible, based on data from South Africa.
“What they have seen in South Africa is a one-week jump from 200 cases per day on average to 3,200 cases per day over a weekly period,” he said. “That’s a pretty substantial increase in the infection rate.”
That a virus like COVID mutates and becomes more infectious is not surprising – he said – and may even be a good thing.
Unnasch predicted in early November that we would see COVID become a more contagious virus, but show milder symptoms. This is because viruses want to keep replicating – and one of the easiest ways to do that is to have less severe symptoms.
A host carrying a milder virus will continue its usual activities and infect more people. A host with more severe disease will isolate itself and infect fewer people.
“If this [variant] is spreading and everyone has a sniffle case, I think we could all deal with it, ”Unnasch said, adding that for the record, the cases in South Africa appear to be mild.
But other experts are a bit more concerned about Omicron, noting the high number of mutations it has on its spike protein.
“The spike protein is the protein we are immune to,” said Dr. Micahel Teng, virology and immunology expert at USF. “If these mutations make Omicron truly immune elusive, then we might have a problem.”
Dr Teng said news of the Omicron variant should encourage Americans to get vaccinated and boost to give them the best possible protection.
Unnasch said based on the time it took for the Delta variant to arrive from India to the United States, he doesn’t think Omicron will be a factor until the holidays.