The World Health Organization confirmed on Wednesday that twenty-three countries now have reported cases of the highly mutated omicron coronavirus variant that was first detected in southern Africa last week.
“At least twenty-three countries from five of six WHO regions have now reported cases of omicron and we expect that number to grow,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters during a media briefing in Geneva.
“WHO takes this development extremely seriously and so should every country,” he continued. “But it should not surprise us. This is what viruses do. And it’s what this virus will continue to do, as we long as we allow it to continue spreading.”
As of this writing, there has yet to be an omicron variant case identified in the United States. However, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and other leading experts have sounded the alarm that the variant will likely enter U.S. borders relatively soon or could already be spreading in some states.
“But as we all know, when you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here. The question is: Will we be prepared for it?” Fauci said in an interview on ABC News’ This Week.
“If and when, and it’s going to be when, it comes here, hopefully we will be ready for it by enhancing our capabilities via vaccine, masking—all the things that we do, and should be doing,” he told the news organization.
Omicron is known to have more than thirty mutations to the spike protein, which could be potentially associated with a decrease in antibody protection and higher transmissibility rates.
“This mutational profile is very different from other variants of interest and concern, and although some mutations are also found in delta, this is not delta,” Fauci told reporters earlier this week during a White House COVID task force briefing.
“These mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion,” he added.
Meanwhile, the WHO noted in a preliminary technical brief “that the likelihood of potential further spread of omicron at the global level is high. . . . Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic. If another major surge of COVID-19 takes place driven by omicron, consequences may be severe.”
However, per NBC News, those individuals who have been infected with the omicron variant appear to have “very mild” symptoms, according to the South African doctor who first identified the variant. In an interview with BBC, Dr. Angelique Coetzee claimed that her patients experienced extreme fatigue but did not have any loss of taste or smell, which is a common symptom seen in many coronavirus-infected patients.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.