Omicron watch leads to renewed vax push

WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) – The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is now deemed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, and Americans are being urged not to become complacent as the U.S. braces for cases of the Omicron coronavirus.

Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He said, “I think the most important thing to put out here is that yes, we shouldn’t be fearful of this, and I hear people talk about panic, but we should be very concerned.”

Less than two weeks after the new coronavirus variant was first detected in South Africa, it has become the dominant strain in that country. By contrast, it took the Delta variant a few months to become the main strain in South Africa early this year.

Osterholm said, “It’s very likely that we’re going to see in the days ahead that the Omicron virus is going to ultimately be the new king of the hill.”

But, there are still many unknowns. Scientists are now racing to determine whether the new variant causes severe disease, how easily it spreads and whether it evades vaccines. It could take weeks to answer those questions.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said, “What we do know, it has a lot of mutations, more than 50, a new record and some of those we’ve seen before and some we haven’t.”

U.S. health officials say the Omicron variant is another reason Americans should use every tool for protection at their disposal.

“Get your vaccine, get your booster,” Collins said. “It’s the best chance we’ve got to drive this COVID-19 pandemic away.”

If needed, vaccine maker Moderna says the company could begin testing and making an Omicron-specific vaccine in two to three months.

Pfizer/BioNTech are also prepared to adapt their vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days.

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