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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The omicron variant, explained

A mask sitting on the sidewalk near Franklin Street in Chapel Hill on Feb. 2, 2021.

Assistant Opinion Editor Ben Rappaport is heading to South Africa next semester after graduating — and today, he asked me, “Do you think I’ll still be able to go?”

In the last week, South African health authorities discovered a new strain of COVID-19 — the omicron variant — after identifying an outbreak and sequencing samples from individuals who tested positive.

Although it was first identified in South Africa, cases have already been identified in Botswana, Hong Kong and Belgium. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the variant has "immune escape potential" and potentially increased transmissibility advantage compared to the delta variant, and there is a high to very high risk it will spread in Europe.

There is a very high possibility that the variant is already in the United States, but there are currently no identified cases.

The variant has an unusually high number of mutations in the key spike protein, which is the structure the virus uses to get into healthy cells. Scientists are concerned the mutations could make the new strain more transmissible, allowing it to evade the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide.

Preliminary data in the next few days should provide information as to how the omicron variant affects vaccine efficacy. Concerns about the new strain fueling a transmission surge globally have already arisen, given how quickly the variant became dominant in the regions of South Africa where it’s been found. It also poses a significant risk to reinfection in people who have already gotten the virus.

Vaccine manufacturers, such as Moderna and BioNTech, are looking at potentially boosting people with a larger dose, or new booster candidates to provide better protection against against the new virus strain.

However, Rappaport’s question still lingers — will travel be halted again?

President Joe Biden said that starting Monday, travel will be restricted from South Africa and seven other countries as a precaution. States in the European Union and Canada have also introduced temporary restrictions on all travel from several southern African countries, including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, in addition to South Africa. 

Israel, on the other hand, has announced sweeping travel restrictions across most of Africa, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett saying the country was “on the verge of a state of emergency.”

Currently, people are able to travel into countries in southern Africa, but some airlines have ceased accepting passengers from those areas.

To keep it short — yes, you could probably still travel to these locations, but it’s best to stay home if you can. However, don’t count on being able to come back anytime soon, especially if the omicron variant is proven to be as contagious as researchers suspect it is.

The most important things you can do to protect yourself are limiting international and domestic travel to busy airports and locations and getting your vaccine and booster shots. Even if the omicron variant renders the current vaccinations less effective, you will be able to get a specifically designed booster before being affected by the new strain.

As of right now, the omicron variant is something to simply keep your eye on, and not something to worry about contracting on a trip to the grocery store. Keep masking up, social distancing and washing your hands — especially with flu season in full swing.


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