Local experts weigh in on what is known and what is not known about the Omicron variant

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The South African doctor who alerted officials of the possibility of a new variant, later named omicron, said the “unusual but mild” symptoms were what caught her attention. (Photo: Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – As people around the world are waiting to learn more about the “Omicron” variant of coronavirus, local experts are sharing their thoughts on the latest mutation of the virus.

Since Omicron was first identified in South Africa before spreading to multiple countries, scientists have known it appears to spread easily.

“This variant appears to be infectious, or highly infectious, much like the Delta variant was,” said Thomas Duszynski, Director of Epidemiology Education at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI. 

“It was able to transmit very effectively to unprotected individuals or susceptible people, people that haven’t had the disease or have not been vaccinated. And then was able to move around the globe as people move, so as flights and trains and buses and such move people, the variant basically hitched a ride with those people to other parts of the world.”

“It has a different sort of molecular shape that would potentially allow it to infect people in a different way than the other variants that we’ve seen and I think that’s why it’s a concern,” said Dr. Brian Dixon, Director of Public Informatics at the Regenstrief Institute. 

“It has some mutations of the gene that we haven’t seen previously, so any time we see new mutations of a virus, we’re always concerned about it. Whether that’s influenza, or obviously right now, very focused on COVID and coronavirus.”

Major questions about Omicron include how sick it can make a person infected with it. There have been reports from South Africa that patients infected with it experienced mild symptoms.

“We’re not sure if this variant of the disease will put people in the hospital more than the Delta variant, or the other variants that we’ve seen,” Dixon said. 

“We also don’t know if people are more likely to get this variant, in terms of are the vaccines effective against this variant, we don’t know that yet.”

Another central question is how effective will vaccines available in the U.S. be against Omicron?

“You have to remember that in the U.S., we’re currently using Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and they were all highly effective against the Delta variant,” said Duszynski. 

“Now other parts of the world use different vaccines, so we have to use some of their data, based on their vaccine. But we really need to understand how the vaccines that are available here in the U.S. effectively protect against this particular variant.”

“I think that is the biggest question mark because there are some mutations in this virus that make some scientists believe that the vaccines may not be as effective against it as they are against the Delta variant and the other variants of concern,” Dixon added. 

“There’s some early evidence that perhaps people who were infected last year with COVID-19, or even earlier this year with COVID-19, that they may be reinfected with this new variant. But we don’t know how the vaccines are going to perform against this new variant yet.”

As of now, Omicron has not been positively identified in the U.S. However, Duszynski says that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t already here.

“It’s important for people to understand that not every case of coronavirus gets tested for variants.  We’re only testing maybe 10-percent of those cases and looking for a variant. So it’s very possible that this variant could already be in the U.S. and we just haven’t detected it yet through surveillance,” he said. 

“I would anticipate that we find this particular variant sometime this week or in the coming days in the U.S. already, given the amount of spread it’s already had across the globe and the timing of this.”

Officials with the Indiana State Department of Health say plans are in place to begin testing for the Omicron variant.

“A PCR test can show whether a sample has molecular markers that indicate whether a variant is present,” said ISDH spokesperson Megan Wade-Taxter. “We anticipate our lab being able to test for the Omicron variant soon and expect to do further testing on samples that include the markers that could indicate the presence of the Omicron variant.”

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