While the world’s newest coronavirus variant of concern, named omicron, hasn’t yet been detected in Washington state or the United States, a UW scientist said Friday that its high number of mutations is particularly concerning.
The new variant — which was first identified in South Africa and has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel — has about 50 mutations, about 30 of which are located in the spike protein, a primary protein the virus uses to enter our cells, said Dr. Deborah Fuller, a microbiologist at UW Medicine.
“The concern regarding the number of mutations in that region is that there’s a potential that those mutations could make our vaccines less effective because the antibody response induced against the spike protein might be less effective against those mutants,” she said.
Some of the mutations being studied are “consistent or associated with increased resistance (to) the vaccine,” Fuller added. “We don’t really know how concerning this is in terms of vaccine.”
South African scientists say the variant has been linked to a recent spike in coronavirus infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. Experts, however, are still trying to determine if the variant is actually responsible.
The World Health Organization on Friday named the variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, the same category that includes the delta variant. The WHO suggested the new variant could pose greater risks of reinfection than delta, which is currently the world’s most prevalent variant — including in Washington state.
“If some of these mutations allow the virus to transmit even more efficiently than the delta variant, then we might see another wave,” Fuller said. “So that’s the concern.”
The variant hasn’t yet been detected in the United States, though Fuller said Friday “that doesn’t mean it isn’t here.”
In Washington, Fuller said researchers and scientists are already developing diagnostic tests to detect the variant, and will start to increase analyses of people who have tested positive for coronavirus. They’re also testing serum from convalescent patients — people previously exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 — to see if their antibodies can fight against the strain.
“This is going to be really essential information to guide us and tell us whether or not we’re going to have to update our vaccine,” Fuller said.
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, told The Associated Press Friday that omicron is “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen” and one that’s spreading rapidly.
The United States and Canada have joined the European Union and several other countries in instituting travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa. U.S. travel bans apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
Canada has banned the entry of all foreign travelers who have been to southern Africa in the last two weeks, while the U.K. is restricting flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
South Africa said Friday the travel bans were unjustified, raising concerns about global tourism industries.
Fuller said she prefers to “err on the side of the safety” when it comes to travel restrictions.
“I don’t think it’s too premature for us to impose some travel restrictions,” Fuller said. “We can always go back and take them off, but if we miss that boat in terms of being able to lessen the transmission of the virus, then that’s something we can’t get back.”
There is no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease, South African experts have said.
“Now is the time to get vaccinated,” Fuller said.