Nov. 29, 2021
While most of us were eating pumpkin pie and ignoring dad’s snoring from the couch, a new coronavirus variant was detected by scientists in South Africa.
The variant — B.1.1.529, colloquially named omicron — is spreading fear across the globe following the speedy identification and classification by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern.”
Omicron cases have already been identified in Israel, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and a handful of European countries.
There are far more questions than answers as the virus quickly makes it way across nations. Here’s what is known and a few open ended questions that should be answered in the coming days and weeks:
Aa – muh – kron. Our brains want to put an N in the middle. It’s not there.
The scientists in South Africa, where the virus was first detected, believe the variant is more easily transmissible. Omicron is likely going to outpace the delta variant in South Africa, said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection prevention at Henry Ford Health System. In the Gaunteng province of South Africa, which includes the country’s largest city of Johannesburg, researchers estimate omicron accounts for more than 90 percent of new cases.
“Omicron has more mutations than anything we’ve seen with COVID so far,” Cunningham said. “The spike protein, which is how the virus gets into human cells, attaches to a certain receptor and infects other cells.”
Omicron has 32 mutations in the spike protein where the highly-transmittable delta variant only had eight mutations.
While the number of mutations is not an exact indication of how dangerous the variant is, it does suggest that our immune system may find it harder to fight the new variant.
Early indications from South Africa seem to show the symptoms may be mild for the omicron variant. Doctors in the country are reporting extreme fatigue and short-term body aches and headaches related to the variant but not major symptoms that attack a patient’s lungs. However, the variant is far too new for concrete evidence that it’s less deadly than previous variants.
“We still don’t have a whole lot of data whether it’s going to cause more severe infection,” Cunningham said.
Dr. Teena Chopra, director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Detroit Medical Center and the director of the Center for Emerging and Infectious Diseases at Wayne State University, warns early evidence isn’t enough to say the variant isn’t as deadly.
“We still need to look at real world data on severity, because most of the cases in South Africa were among young people,” Chopra said. “We need to wait a few weeks for clinical data. I’m not yet comfortable saying it’s less dangerous.”
Chopra expects better data on the dangers of the variant to emerge from South Africa next week.
Cunningham, however, said the identified mutations appear to point to the variant being less susceptible to monoclonal antibody therapies, which have been critical in preventing serious illness in certain infected populations. The therapy, used in hospitals and clinics across the region and U.S., is shown to reduce hospitalizations in at-risk groups by as much as 70 percent.
Cunningham also urges universal mask wearing in public indoor spaces to protect from the current fourth surge and to slow the spread of the omicron variant.
Cunningham said it’s too early to fully understand whether omicron evades vaccine protection, but early indications suggest vaccines do provide at least some protection, if slightly reduced.
“The vaccines might not be as good at protecting for omicron as other variants, but it’s still the best protection we have and we urge everyone to get a vaccine,” Cunningham said.
Only about 25 percent of South Africans are vaccinated, which may have contributed to the 592 percent increase in cases the country saw between Nov. 20-27.
The U.S. joined Canada and the European union Monday by restricting travel from seven African nations — South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Only U.S. residents will be allowed to travel to and from those nations. In Canada, foreign citizens are banned from entering the nation if they had traveled to those countries in the past two weeks.
However, with cases already in Canada, it’s likely cases will be identified in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, much like the delta variant, which quickly became the dominant variant in a matter of weeks earlier this year.
There is no indication, yet, that Canada will once again shut its border to the U.S. as it did last year. Critical workers on TN visas, allowing them to live in Canada and work in the U.S. and vice versa, were never restricted.
As of Monday morning, there were no indications from the governor’s office or the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that the state would enact new rules around masking, business closures or the like. And given Gov. Whitmer’s recent distaste for embracing restrictions, it may be unlikely. Neither the state health department nor governor’s office immediately responded to inquiries.
At an event in Taylor Monday morning, Whitmer said: “We are learning to live with this virus.”
“What we have tried to do is educate the public so everyone can do their part,” the governor said. “We know that mandates with the population aren’t as persuasive and that’s part of the issue that we’re confronting here.”
The MDHHS isn’t yet raising red flags either.
“Details on the B.1.1.529 variant are still emerging, and we are following the international data closely,” Lynn Sutfin, public information officer for MDHHS, said in a statement to Crain’s. “No additional precautions or protective actions have been identified at this time. The MDHHS lab is monitoring for the Omicron variant and has not identified any cases to date.”
However, a massive surge in the new variant could lead to further isolation and quarantining and impact business operations. On Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 905 points as investors bailed on riskier bets following the identification of omicron. It’s likely the variant will continue to impact what had been shaping up to be a near record fourth quarter for many businesses.
Cunningham said more variants are likely on the way with the low vaccination numbers across the world — Michigan is only about 55 percent fully vaccinated, including children 5 and up who can get the Pfizer-BioNTech injection.
“We’re going to be living with COVID for a long time, possibly forever,” Cunningham said. “The infection rate would have to come down for this to be considered an endemic. It’s still a pandemic. But if I were in Las Vegas, I would be betting for periodic outbreaks for a very long time. So please stay home if you’re feeling sick. Wear a mask. Get vaccinated.”