Omicron variant poses a fresh Covid-19 threat to the US, UK
The new omicron coronavirus variant spreading around the world may bring another wave of chaos in the US and UK, threatening to further stretch hospital workers already struggling with a surge of delta cases for the second year in a row.
The White House on Wednesday insisted there is no need for a lockdown because vaccines are widely available and appear to offer protection against the worst consequences of the virus. But even if omicron proves milder on the whole than delta, it may disarm some of the life-saving tools available and put immune-compromised and elderly people at particular risk as it begins a rapid assault on the United States.
“Our delta surge is ongoing and, in fact, accelerating. And on top of that, we’re going to add an omicron surge,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.
“That’s alarming, because our hospitals are already filling up. Staff are fatigued,” leaving limited capacity for a potential crush of COVID-19 cases “from an omicron wave superimposed on a delta surge.”
Most likely, he and other experts said at a press briefing Tuesday, an omicron surge is already under way in the United States, with the latest mutant coronavirus outpacing the nation’s ability to track it.
Based on specimens collected last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said omicron accounted for about 3% of genetically-sequenced coronaviruses nationally. Percentages vary by region, with the highest – 13% – in the New York/New Jersey area.
But Harvard experts said these are likely underestimates because omicron is moving so fast that surveillance attempts can’t keep up.
Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of omicron. In the United States, 36 states have detected the variant. Meanwhile, delta is surging in many places, with hot spots in New England and the upper Midwest. The five states with the highest two-week rolling average of cases per 100,000 people are New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont.
Outside the U.S., the president of the European Union said omicron will become the dominant variant in a month and declared that “once again, this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic.”
Scientists around the world are racing to understand omicron, which has a large number of worrisome mutations in important regions of its genetic structure that could affect how well it spreads from person to person. How quickly the number of cases doubles, known as “doubling time,” can give a preview of what the disease burden could be in a few weeks.
In Britain, where omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, the variant is expected to soon replace delta as the dominant strain in the country. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned the country faces a "huge spike" of infections this winter.
“The data out of the UK are quite alarming at this point,” and foreshadow what’s to come in the United States, said Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. For example, she said, by Tuesday afternoon, omicron was already the most common variant in London.