Omicron Variation Adds New Hazard To Holiday Season In California And Beyond

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A clinic in San Rafael. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

A newly identified variant of the coronavirus that has triggered global travel restrictions and rocked financial markets could make the critical holiday season even more perilous in California and across the country.

Even before the Omicron variant was discovered, health officials were warning of a winter wave of COVID-19 as society regroups for holiday events and travel, and cold weather keeps more people alive inside. While it’s not clear how dangerous the new variant is, it adds urgency to efforts to get more people vaccinated – and to get boosters for those with waning immunity – and to keep up with the masking. and other safety rules, according to experts.

“The new variant adds another reminder that there are more new variants that are potentially in incubation,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla. “So if anything, Omicron’s silver lining is that it’s a wake-up call to all those people who think we’re at the end of this. No, we’re not – no. everything, unfortunately. “

While no case of the Omicron variant has been detected in the United States, many experts say it may already be here, given the lack of systematic genomic sequencing from the country reporting it.

The variant, first identified in South Africa amid a spike in infections there, has more mutations than all scientists have seen, including some that may make the virus more resistant to immunity generated by infections or previous vaccines. But not much is known, including whether the variant is more transmissible, causes more serious disease, or reduces the effectiveness of vaccines.

“We are in a constant battle against this virus,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the epidemiology and biostatistics department at UC San Francisco. “We must always be vigilant, and we don’t have to overreact to this or assume that there is no threat at all.”

California will enter December in better shape than many other states. New cases of the coronavirus in California have declined slightly in recent weeks after increasing in late October. But there are still hot spots in California where the impact of the Delta variant on hospitals remains high; in the central valley, some hospitals are inundated with COVID-19 patients.

Nearly 64% of Californians are fully vaccinated, according to the Times vaccine tracker, but that number is too low to curb a fifth wave of COVID-19 expected this winter. There has been an increase in demand for vaccines among 5 to 11 year olds, and interest in booster vaccines is increasing, but officials are concerned about the low vaccination rate among young adults.

The specter of a potentially dangerous new variant comes as many report an overwhelming sense of pandemic fatigue as the health crisis approaches its third year.

The World Health Organization on Friday named the new variant Omicron and quickly listed it as a variant of concern. The news prompted several countries, including the United States, to restrict travel from South Africa and other African countries. Travel restrictions in the United States go into effect Monday.

“It has clearly been around for weeks. It evolves silently. It takes a while for this stuff to catch your eye,” said Dr. Robert Schooley, professor of infectious diseases at UC San Diego School of Medicine. .

Still, he said, it’s hard to predict when the variant might appear in California.

“One of the things that makes it difficult is that we may have seen it for the first time in South Africa because they have a more sophisticated variant tracking system,” he said. declared. There is no evidence that the variant appeared there, he added – it could have started anywhere with a connection to that nation.

While restricting travel may have benefits, it is unlikely to prevent the spread of the variant, he said.

“It will give us more time to understand its properties, to convince unvaccinated people that they have a moment to jump on things, but that is not going to prevent it from going global,” he said. “We live in a globalized world. “

The variant has around 50 mutations, Topol said. Of these, 30 are found in the spike protein, which is targeted by vaccines and some monoclonal antibody therapies, according to Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the Fielding School of Public Health at the ‘UCLA.

“So the concern is whether this variant will have some ability to bypass, if you will, our vaccines and some of our therapies?” Kim-Farley said.

Early observations suggest this could be the case, with breakthrough infections reported in those vaccinated, Topol said.

“We know breakthroughs are happening, and they have happened so far with several vaccines,” he said. “This in itself is worrying. And looking at the structure of the virus, it might have the potential to fundamentally override our immune response. “

Initial data suggests that the variant causes mild illness, based on many cases tracked in South Africa, Topol said. This would make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it is advantageous for a virus to become more infectious but less virulent, Kim-Farley said.

“If a virus gets so bad that it kills most people, then it won’t travel much because it needs people who can pass it on to others,” he said. “So, in a sense, the virus seeks to increase transmissibility and generally reduce its severity.”

But while scientists can make educated guesses about how the variant behaves based on its genetic structure and initial reports, more testing and observation is needed.

“At the moment, all of these questions are still open as to answers, and that is why there is so much scrutiny going on in South Africa and the countries of southern Africa, as well as now the fact that ‘it has been seen more recently in the UK, Czech Republic and Belgium, “Kim-Farley said.” And so the Guard is everywhere now looking for this new variant, because no doubt it will be found elsewhere . “

The variant has also been found in travelers to Israel and Hong Kong; Germany and Italy reported cases on Saturday afternoon.

When it comes to dealing with Omicron, California is well positioned relative to much of the country, as elected officials largely agree with public health experts in enforcing control methods such as vaccination and masking requirements, Kim-Farley said.

Even if the variant were to spread and generate an increase in the number of patients hospitalized here, the healthcare system has had a lot of practice to resist these types of spikes. This picture may be a bit more complicated in the Central Valley, where authorities are already expecting a difficult winter due to relatively low vaccination rates.

California statewide full vaccination rate is slightly higher than the US average, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates at 60%, but the rate remains “well suboptimal,” Topol said .

“We need at least 90% of people who are vaccinated or have had a recent confirmed COVID infection, and we’re not even close,” he said, adding that leaves millions of Californians who must acquire immunity. “We are very vulnerable here and that can change quickly. Once it starts, it becomes exponential – we’ve seen this over and over, and we haven’t learned this lesson yet. “

He urged people to take extra precautions at holiday gatherings, including testing participants and holding events outside or, if they are inside, with open windows and filtration devices. air.

Bibbins-Domingo added that “common sense” tactics include wearing a mask and assessing whether to enter “riskier travel situations”.

Scientists are also expected to increase the frequency of in-depth analyzes of COVID test results, she said.

“When you go for a PCR test, for example, right now, your PCR test just tells you whether or not the swab you donated contains the virus,” she said. “But we can take that same swab and go down to the pieces of DNA that allow you to characterize this virus down to its molecular level.”

Now that scientists in South Africa have raised the red flag on Omicron, those in the United States will likely perform this more rigorous research with greater frequency, Bibbins-Domingo said.

The most important thing people can do is get vaccinated and receive boosters when they are eligible, because even though the variant makes vaccines less effective, they offer some protection and remain the best tool to fight. the disease, said Kim-Farley. It is expected that manufacturers will be able to quickly adjust vaccine formulations to account for the variant if necessary, in the same way that the influenza vaccine is adjusted every year, he added.

More than anything, he said, the emergence of the variant has shed light on exactly what will be needed to bring the pandemic under control: global solidarity.

“We should really see the world as one human body,” he said. “And if we have a sore on the foot, the brain can’t say, ‘I don’t have to worry about it, it’s just the foot’, because at the end of the day that sore could get infected. and the whole body dies. “

Times writer Luke Money contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


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