Public health officials in South Africa are raising the alarm on a new coronavirus variant that they believe is responsible for a rapid spread of the virus in young people in the country's most populous province.
This new variant, which the World Health Organization dubbed Omicron in a meeting Friday, has many mutations to its structure, scientists say. Health officials monitor coronavirus variants for these types of mutations, some of which, like the delta variant, lead to significant concerns while others die out.
Dr. Ulysses Wu, chief epidemiologist and system director for infectious diseases at Hartford HealthCare, said it's really too soon to know what the impact of this new variant could be.
Get Connecticut local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Connecticut newsletters.
"Most mutations really actually don't mean anything. But some mutations, when they get worried have to do with its level of transmissibility, its level of infectivity. Its ability to evade the immune system, its ability to evade treatments or vaccines, such as the vaccinations or the monoclonal. So, like I said, a lot of mutations don't actually matter so much. And so we've certainly had a lot of variants that have, that we've certainly been worried about in the past, but ended up being nothing like the new variants or, you know, so on so on. So and even the Delta variant has had variants of itself that have not panned out. So this South African variant, not much is known about it," Wu explained.
A lack of vaccination on the global level means we should expect to continue to see variants, Wu said, and that as new mutations occur it is possible that they may be more transmissible or resistant to current vaccines and treatments.
News of this variant's discovery has already sent shockwaves through the markets, leading to concerns about demand for travel and other sectors that are still recovering from pandemic lockdowns and hits over the course of the last 18 or so months.
Wu said at present he's more nervous about the impact of the better-known delta variant and how current behavior may affect the holiday season.
Get the latest news on COVID-19 delivered to you. Click here to sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter.
"We should be nervous about the one that's actually already here, which is the delta variants. Our vaccination rates are still terrible if you can, if you take a look outside you'll see that the social distancing and masking measures are you know, they're quite variable at this point. And so we're doing pretty good as a state you know, our state's doing well with when it comes to masking, but if you travel to other states, you know, right across the border like New Hampshire, some of the southern states, the Midwest, masking is for the most part nonexistent," Wu said.
"And then we also know that vaccination rates are fairly low as well not anywhere close to where we need to get it to. So yeah, we should be worried but not about this new variant, we should be worried about creating a new variant. And we should also be worried about the variant that's already here that is killing, unfortunately, lots of people daily."