US coronavirus: The Omicron variant is raising concerns amid the holiday travel season, but there’s no need to panic just yet, experts say

“Any time we’ve seen a new variant, it’s already spread around the world. So the fact that Omicron is in multiple countries in Europe, in the US, is not necessarily an ominous sign. And I think that’s a key point to keep in mind,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN’s Jim Acosta Saturday. “And also remember we’ve not seen any evidence that Omicron produces more severe disease than any of the other variants.”

The Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa, was deemed a variant of concern by the World Health Organization Friday — sounding a heightened alarm globally over the state of the coronavirus pandemic, which has spanned nearly two years.

In response, many countries, including the US, moved urgently in implementing travel bans. Besides South Africa, the newly identified variant has been detected in Australia, the UK, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Friday that it has not detected any cases of the Omicron variant in the US.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci told NBC Saturday that he would “not be surprised” if the Omicron variant is already in the US.

“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re having travel-related cases they’ve noted in other places already, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is going to go all over,” Fauci said.

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that travel restrictions allow health experts to have additional time to study the variant and understand it in a more significant capacity — including whether the current vaccines are effective against Omicron.

“The vaccines we use may very well be able to contain this. And then it won’t be as serious as some people are surmising it might be. A lot of unknowns,” Fauci told NBC. “You don’t want people to panic, but you want to know we’re doing everything we can to stay ahead of this.”

US federal health officials are working around the clock to learn more about Omicron, one official told CNN Saturday, but it could be several weeks before they know whether the fears of the highly mutated variant are justified.

The concern over the new variant comes as Thanksgiving weekend kicks off the holiday travel season in the US and passengers pack airports at near pre-pandemic levels. The Transportation Security Administration said it screened about 2.3 million people at airports across the country on Wednesday, making it the busiest day at security checkpoints since March 2020. The number is 88{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} of the traffic seen on the equivalent Wednesday in 2019, prior to the pandemic. And it is more than twice the number of people TSA screened on the same day last year.

More contagious doesn’t always mean more dangerous, expert says

The Omicron strain of coronavirus is concerning to scientists because the variant’s significant number of mutations could make it more contagious than the original novel coronavirus strain.

But with so much still unknown, Dr. Saju Mathew, a public health specialist, told CNN Saturday that the priority is on learning more about the variant and vaccination.

“I take the whole position that we shouldn’t panic just yet. The most important thing is to study the virus. Just because this virus is more contagious, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more dangerous,” Mathew said, noting vaccinations are still vitally important. “This is the time to show up at your local pharmacy and get the vaccinations.”

The new Omicron variant is a pandemic gut check
The latest data from the CDC shows more than 196 million Americans, or 59{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} of the US population, are fully vaccinated. Nearly 37.5 million have received booster shots, the data shows.

Vaccine maker Moderna said Friday that it’s moving quickly to test the ability of its vaccine to neutralize Omicron, and data is expected in the coming weeks.

The strain includes mutations “seen in the Delta variant that are believed to increase transmissibility and mutations seen in the Beta and Delta variants that are believed to promote immune escape,” Moderna said in a news release.

“The combination of mutations represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity.”

If its current vaccine and booster are insufficient against the variant, Moderna explained one possible solution is boosting people with a larger dose, which the company is testing. It also testing an Omicron-specific booster.

Scientists at BioNTech, the German company that partnered with Pfizer to make its Covid-19 vaccine, are also investigating the impact of the variant on their shot, with data expected within the upcoming weeks.

A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson told CNN in a statement the company was also testing the effectiveness of its vaccine against Omicron.

Scientists work on the Covid-19 at the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Omicron will make its way around the world, expert says

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, echoed that the variant could be in the US, noting he anticipates stricter Covid-19 mitigation efforts to return.

“It’s going to make its way around the world. It looks like that way,” Schaffner told CNN Saturday. “I think we may, indeed, be in for a phase of many more masks, much more social distancing, and more restrictions and obligations for vaccination going forward.”

He added that even if the Omicron variant isn’t in the US, it’s bound to be “soon.”

Meanwhile, the US is still suffering from the Delta variant surge — a variant the CDC has said is about as contagious as chickenpox. The average of daily deaths was more than 1,000 as of Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University, and hospitalizations in 16 states increased by more than 50{e9f0aada585b9d73d0d08d3c277fd760092386ec23cac37d50f4b8cd792b062a} in the past week compared to the previous week, the US Health and Human Services Department said.

“I think we need to just get our mind set that the virus is still in control. I don’t care about your covid fatigue,” Schaffner said. “We’re going to have to deal with this in an ongoing way very, very seriously. … Tighten your seat belts.”

CNN’s Jacqueline Howard, Virginia Langmaid, Michael Nedelman, Frederik Pleitgen and Kaitlan Collins.