As Highly Mutated Omicron COVID Variant Spreads, Should Americans Be Worried?

Cases of the Omicron variant of COVID continue to be reported around the world, with at least two cases detected in North America over the weekend.

The two Canadian cases bring the variant closer to the U.S., where it had not yet been detected as of Monday morning.

Elsewhere in the world, the variant has been found in countries including Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Canada, and South Africa, according to Reuters on Sunday.

Omicron has caused alarm because it is more heavily mutated than any other COVID variant. This means it could behave differently, and researchers have already said that early data suggests the variant could spread faster or resist natural or vaccine-induced immunity better than other variants—but this has yet to be proven.

Since the variant was only detected weeks ago and widely reported just days ago, scientists are still uncertain about the risk it poses.

But based on what we know so far about its many spike protein mutations, as well as a reported rise in cases in parts of South Africa where Omicron has been detected, some experts are concerned.

Researchers have told Newsweek that the U.S. and other nations should be vigilant. "It's certainly one to watch, monitor and be concerned about—at least until we know more than we do now," John Moore, professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Weill Cornell Medical College, said.

Stephen Morse, professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, called for vigilance and expressed concern about the international response.

"Any development, such as a new variant, is potentially worrisome," he told Newsweek, "but it takes time to know how worrisome, and we're still learning how to evaluate these variants.

"The fact that we seem to be caught by surprise so often argues strongly for more systematic global viral surveillance, particularly genomic surveillance to spot these changes before a new variant gets a chance to spread worldwide.

"In the case of the Omicron variant, the sequence was first reported on November 11. This virus must have been circulating in southern Africa before then, so it may well have entered the U.S. already."

Indeed, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told NBC's Weekend TODAY on Saturday that "a virus like this...is ultimately going to go essentially all over."

"You don't want to frighten the American public," he said, but stressed the development was something "to take seriously."

Morse added that the immediate concern is that Omicron could have "the potential to be the next Delta," but there isn't enough data yet to tell.

The variant has emerged at concerning time, too. The U.S. and many Western countries are entering the Christmas season, with travel likely on the horizon for many.

Morse said he was worried about this, combined with a complacency surrounding mask wearing and other nonpharmaceutical interventions like social distancing and ventilation.

For Andrew Pekosz, professor and vice chair of the W. Harry Feinstone Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at Johns Hopkins University, part of the urgency lies in preparing national testing and sequencing capacity.

He said that even if Omicron proves resistant to immunity, a largely immune population would still help lower its impact. "For the general public, this is a reminder that if you haven't gotten a booster—go get one. If you haven't gotten the vaccine—go get it," he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified Omicron as a variant of concern last week.

COVID test
A health worker prepares a COVID test at Sydney International Airport in Sydney, Australia, on November 28, 2021. The Omicron variant has sparked concern due to its high number of mutations. James D. Morgan/Getty