Parts of the U.S. have begun an all-out assault against the new, highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 as Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that the variant is likely already circulating in the country.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency Friday, limiting hospital capacity to emergency needs as of Dec. 3 and arranging for the purchase of medical supplies. The emergency state, which temporarily bans elective surgeries, will remain in effect until at least Jan. 15.
“We continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” Hochul said.
The Omicron variant, formally known as B.1.1.529, was classified as a “variant of concern” and given its Greek name by the World Health Organization on Friday. The designation, prompted by a cluster of cases originating out of southern Africa, led to the U.S. imposing travel restrictions on South Africa and seven other African countries.
Three more European nations—the U.K., Italy and Germany—recorded their first Omicron cases on Saturday among travelers returning from countries in southern Africa. The variant was previously detected in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, and Belgium. Australia and the Czech Republic are also working to confirm possible cases among returned travelers.
The CDC said late Friday that it hasn’t detected any cases of it so far, though Fauci told Weekend TODAY that it wouldn’t surprise him if the variant was already here.
“We have not detected it yet,” he said, “but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”
The CDC said in its statement that it would be able to detect the variant quickly once it emerges. The agency also thanked the South African government for expeditiously reporting the new and highly transmissible variant.
“We are grateful to the South African government and its scientists who have openly communicated with the global scientific community and continue to share information about this variant with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC,” it said.
The Omicron variant is of particular concern because it has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells.
“This is an insane amount of change,” epidemiologist Katelyn Jeteline wrote in an explainer on Omicron. “As a comparison, Delta had 9 changes on the spike protein.” The spike is “the key into our cells. If the virus changes to become a smarter key, we need to know,” she added.
The variant has quickly spread from African nations to Europe. Dutch authorities revealed Saturday that 61 people arriving on two KLM flights from South Africa tested positive but it’s not known whether they are infected with Omicron.