While there were no reported cases of omicron, the new COVID-19 variant, in Connecticut as of Monday afternoon, health care experts in the state say it may prove more detectable than other variants of the virus.
“I am very confident that we can detect omicron quickly,” said Nathan Grubaugh, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, whose team tracks COVID-19 variants in Connecticut.
It is possible that omicron is already in Connecticut, but not yet widely prevalent, Grubaugh said. But if the variant drives a significant local outbreak, he believes it could be detected within a week or less. In Connecticut, 10 to 30% of COVID-19 cases are sequenced per week, he noted, and sequencing systems can detect variants “at very low frequencies, even less than 1%.”
Health care experts said that the state is in a strong position to confront the new variant. Hartford HealthCare chief clinical officer Dr. Ajay Kumar advised the public Monday “not to panic” in response to the emergence of omicron, a message echoed on the national level by President Biden. The state Department of Public Health is monitoring the spread of the variant and urging residents to get vaccinated and seek out testing if unwell.
“We know what to do,” Kumar said. “We have learned quite a bit in the last two years managing the pandemic … we have more tools in our toolbox to manage patients. We are better prepared as a system, as a hospital.”
The variant, designated by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern” on Friday, was first reported in South Africa. By Sunday, omicron had been identified in Canada, marking its spread to North America.
Key questions about omicron remain unanswered, including precisely how transmissible it is, how well vaccines protect against it, and whether it leads to more severe disease.
“It is considered more transmissible than the previous variant, but we don’t know the effectiveness of the vaccines,” Kumar said, though he noted that early data suggest that the variant has mild effects on those who are vaccinated.
But Omicron does have a particular feature that makes it easier to recognize than other variants: a mutation at the site of one of the genes targeted by a PCR test, technically termed a “spike gene target failure.” That genetic detail — which Grubaugh noted has not appeared in any samples over the past three weeks — may help scientists quickly detect the variant as it spreads.
“Right now, delta and anything else that’s circulating doesn’t have that mutation, so I think if we started seeing that … that would be a presumed omicron until the sequencing results could come back,” said Mark Adams, deputy director of The Jackson Laboratory in Farmington. “The state has already asked us to report if we see that.”
Dr. Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease specialist at Hartford HealthCare, emphasized that even with the emergence of omicron, Connecticut’s most pressing threat remains the delta variant, which currently drives COVID-19 transmission in the state.
“There is a variant out there that’s doing a number on us, and that’s delta,” he said.
While it remains to be seen how effective COVID-19 vaccines are against omicron, vaccinations and boosters should deliver some degree of protection, experts say. Initial reports from South Africa indicate that omicron cases among vaccinated individuals have been mild to moderate; the most severe cases have been concentrated among those who are not fully vaccinated.
For many local experts, the emergence of omicron means a renewed fight against COVID-19, armed with the same weapons that have been critical in slowing transmission throughout the pandemic: vaccinations, boosters, testing, masking and limiting risky social behaviors.
“The good advice is still the good advice,” Adams, of the Jackson Lab, said.
Eliza Fawcett can be reached at email@example.com.