Unknowns surround omicron variant

·3 min read

Dec. 1—HIGH POINT — A series of worrisome unknowns surround the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant, but one critical uncertainty could clear up soon, a High Point University health instructor said.

Medical researchers should determine within two weeks how effective existing vaccines are against the new variant, said Jordan Smith, an assistant professor of clinical sciences.

The omicron variant first was identified in South Africa in November, but new findings this week indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm, and it also has been found in Australia, Israel, Japan and Canada.

As of Tuesday a case of omicron infection hadn't been confirmed in North Carolina, state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said during the latest COVID-19 briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. But Cohen, who was joined by Gov. Roy Cooper, said it's likely cases will emerge in North Carolina and the United States.

Smith told The Enterprise that the best-case scenario would involve an omicron outbreak not as severe as the delta variant, which sparked a steep rise in infections, hospitalizations and deaths starting this past summer.

"Hopefully you wouldn't see a drastic increase in the amount of cases," Smith said.

The worst-case scenario would involve the omicron variant becoming not only significantly more contagious but also spurring more severe infections as well as not responding to vaccines.

"We would be back at the drawing board," Smith said. "But I think that is extremely unlikely. I think vaccines will build on the background immunity we have built and confer some level of help against the omicron variant."

Pharmaceutical companies will work on new versions of vaccines that take the omicron variant into consideration, he said.

"You could see that being able to be made in six weeks to two months, and mass production in three to four months if it comes to that. That's the silver lining if it comes to that," Smith said.

During their briefing, Cooper and Cohen continued emphasizing vaccination as the best approach for countering the coronavirus pandemic.

As of Tuesday, 68% of North Carolinians were fully vaccinated, with another 4% partially vaccinated.

"With the holidays approaching and people gathering, don't wait to vaccinate," Cohen said.

Cohen, who has led the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services since the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, announced Tuesday that she will depart her post effective next month. She didn't release a new role that she'll be taking.

Cohen said she had no plans to run for public office, as some had speculated upon word of her departure. She said she hoped her next steps would keep her and her family in North Carolina, and she would be looking at a range of opportunities.

Kody Kinsley, chief deputy secretary for health at the department and lead for COVID-19 operations, will replace Cohen on Jan. 1, the news release said. Cooper's office said Kinsley, a Wilmington native, would be the first openly gay Cabinet member in state government history. He is subject to a confirmation vote by the state Senate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

pjohnson@hpenews.com — 336-888-3528 — @HPEpaul

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