Several dozen cases of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus have been identified in the United States, a number that is “likely to rise,” said Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sunday. on ABC’s “This Week.”
Genetic sequencing is needed to determine which variant an infected patient has. In recent months, the United States has significantly expanded sequencing efforts, but the process takes time. For example, the CDC usually takes about 10 days to deliver results. According to Dr. Walensky is sequenced about 14 percent of all positive PCR tests in the United States.
The variant has a cluster of mutations that have raised alarms around the world, but at this early stage there are still more questions than answers, health officials said on Sunday.
“What we don’t know yet is how transmissible it will be, how well our vaccines will work, whether it will lead to a more serious disease,” said Dr. walensky.
US officials are in regular contact with experts in South Africa, where the variant is now widespread, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease physician, on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
How quickly Omicron will spread in the United States, where the highly contagious Delta variant now accounts for 99.9 percent of all cases, remains unknown, said Dr. Fauci. “What’s going to happen if you let those two compete with each other?” he said, adding that “we have to be really careful” in assessing how serious Omicron could end up being.
A new report from South Africa has sparked hopes the variant won’t cause serious illness, though it’s far too early to conclude that, experts say. The report mainly focuses on 42 patients at a hospital in Gauteng province, the center of the Omicron outbreak in the country.
While the researchers were unable to confirm that all cases were caused by Omicron, the majority of patients with the virus did not require supplemental oxygen, the report said, and many were not hospitalized for Covid-19 itself. Instead, they tested positive for the virus after being admitted for other reasons.
“This is an image not seen in previous waves,” wrote Dr. Fareed Abdullah, who heads the Office of AIDS and TB Research at the South African Medical Research Council and is the author of the new report.
But the findings come with important caveats, including the fact that the patients were younger than during previous waves, and thus less likely to develop serious illness. The data is also good for just the first two weeks of the outbreak – hospitalizations and deaths are often a lagging indicator and could rise in the coming weeks.
Omicron’s rapid spread still poses risks, said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for the response to the coronavirus, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
“Even if we have a large number of mild cases, some of those individuals will need hospitalizations, they will have to go to the ICU, and some people will die,” she said. “And so more cases could mean more hospitalizations, and more hospitalizations could mean more deaths.”
She also urged governments to act quickly by increasing vaccination and encouraging the wearing of masks, distance and ventilation to curb the spread of Omicron and Delta.
The Biden administration recently announced plans to expand its booster campaign and increase access to rapid tests. On Monday, the United States will begin requiring all inbound air travelers to show proof of a negative test taken the day before departure, regardless of their vaccination status or citizenship.
On Sunday, officials also defended the government’s ban on travelers from eight countries in southern Africa. The ban has been criticized for being both useless and overly punitive.
“That ban was done at a time when we were really in limbo,” said Dr. Fauci, noting that it was intended to give officials time to gather more information about Omicron. But as more information comes in from around the world, officials are regularly re-evaluating the ban, he said.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to lift that ban within a fairly reasonable time,” he said, adding that “we all feel very bad about the hardship” it has caused Southern Africa.
But officials rejected the possibility of domestic travel restrictions, noting they would be impractical. “That would be extremely taxing for people trying to travel across the country for things like vacations,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “And I don’t know how much we would win with it.”