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Jacksonville infectious disease specialist breaks down what scientists need to learn about the omicron variant

The omicron variant is a concern, scientists say, because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in South Africa.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A new coronavirus variant, 'omicron,' has been detected in South Africa.

The United States responded fast Friday by banning travel from South Africa and seven other African nations by non-US citizens beginning Monday. 

What do we know about the COVID omicron variant? Why has it been deemed a variant 'of concern' by scientists?

South African scientists identified the new variant this week after looking into what was behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections, especially in its young people.

“The concern is this may be more contagious than the delta variant," Dr. Mohammed Reza, Jacksonville infectious disease specialist said. "We don't know yet, but given how quickly this variant transmitted across the South African population – that's the concern."

Reza says omicron is very different than former COVID-19 variants – with a high number of mutations.

“The concern is if a virus has so many more mutations, and that's by protein. How effective are vaccines going to be in protecting and preventing infection?” he asked.

However, these are just initial concerns and findings.

What are scientists working to learn now?

  1. If omicron spreads faster (more contagious) than delta.
  1. If the current vaccines are going to be effective against the new variant.
  1. If the variant will cause more severe disease.

“We're at that point where [there are] very low levels of transmission in our communities, which is fantastic," Reza explained. "But, this is a time I tell my patients, I tell all of us, to get armed against a possible future surge."

Reza pointed out that the infection rate across Northeast Florida has been fluctuating up and down during the coronavirus pandemic.

He says now is the time for people to receive a vaccine or booster shot. Reza also encourages people to continue wearing masks, which helps protect against any COVID-19 variant or respiratory illness.