First Case of Omicron Variant in the U.S. Confirmed

Scientists have yet to determine the lethality and transmissibility of the Omicron variant.

Omicron has landed in the United States. The first case of the variant that had been unknown until about a couple of weeks ago has been confirmed in California.

At a White House press briefing, Anthony Fauci, MD, the chief medical advisor for the Biden administration, said that the variant was discovered in a person who traveled from South Africa. Fauci said that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the California and San Francisco Departments of Health confirmed that the person, who journeyed from South Africa on November 22, tested positive for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 on November 29 and is self-quarantining. Contact tracing was used to find people who’d been in close proximity to the person, but all tested negative. Fauci said that the patient was experiencing “mild symptoms, which are improving at this point.”

That could be a pivotal point as the Washington Post reports that if Omicron causes only mild symptoms, as has been noted in initial clinical investigations, that could be a way to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tony Blakely, MBChB, MPH, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Melbourne, tells the Washington Post that if Omicron causes less severe symptoms “that may actually be a good thing because it means that as it washes through populations, you’ll have less morbidity and mortality.”

Catherine Bennett, BSc, MAppEpid, PhD, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, tells the newspaper that “if we had something more infectious, something capable of outrunning Delta, that had a better profile when it came to virulence or disease causation, then that would be one of those small mercies.”

The discovery of the variant in the US comes on the heels of the CDC suggesting that all adults 18 or older get a COVID-19 booster shot. Rochelle Walensky, MD, the CDC’s director, issued the recommendation on Monday. “Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are 6 months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or 2 months after their initial J&J vaccine,” Walensky said in a statement. “The recent emergence of the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19. Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant.”

It also comes on the heels of an interview by Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, who told the Financial Times that he worries that the vaccine his company manufactures (which some studies show to be more effective than the Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines) might not be as effective against Omicron as it has been against the Alpha and Beta strains of COVID-19, the original dominant strains until the Delta variant shoved them aside. The company’s quite capable of creating a vaccine specifically for Omicron; it did so for Delta, but never put the Delta-specific vaccine on the market because the vaccine against Alpha and Beta worked just as well against Delta.

Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech are currently working on vaccines to target Omicron. And unlike the vaccine made specifically to deal with Delta, Bancel thinks that the Omicron vaccine will most likely be needed. The current vaccine will not be effective enough against Omicron. “I think it’s going to be a material drop,” Bancel tells the Financial Times. “I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like, ‘This is not going to be good.’”

Scientists might be about 2 weeks away from determining the severity and transmissibility of Omicron.