Mysteries of omicron variant could take weeks to untangle

By LAURAN NEERGAARD and LAURA UNGAR

A pandemic-weary world faces weeks of confusing uncertainty as countries restrict travel and take other steps to halt the newest potentially risky coronavirus mutant before anyone knows just how dangerous omicron really is.

Will it spread even faster than the already extra-contagious delta variant? Does it make people sicker? Does it evade vaccines’ protection or reinfect survivors? There are lots of guesses but little hard evidence as scientists race to find answers amid scrutiny from an anxious public.

“Pretty much the right level of freaking out,” is how Trevor Bedford, who studies evolution of the coronavirus at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, characterized health experts’ reactions.

Omicron might not turn out “as bad as we’re perhaps imagining it could be but treating it as such at the moment I think is entirely appropriate,” he said.

Up to now, the world has been slow to react to each coronavirus curveball. This time an early warning from South Africa and Botswana might have offered important head start.

“It’s hard to know: Have we just simply caught up to the reality and now the world is reacting with the appropriate speed as variants emerge?” asked Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.

WHY THE WORRY?

Omicron raised alarm because of its sheer number of mutations, more than prior variants had. Possibly 30 are in a key place, the spike protein that lets the virus attach to human cells.

FILE – A worker disinfects chairs at a new vaccination center in Lisbon, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. A pandemic-weary world faces weeks of confusing uncertainty as countries restrict travel and take other steps to halt the newest potentially risky coronavirus mutant before anyone knows just how dangerous omicron really is. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)

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