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Mid-South health expert weighs in on new COVID-19 variant

Published: Nov. 26, 2021 at 9:27 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Just as the Delta variant has slowed down, a new COVID-19 variant is on the horizon.

Friday, scientists with the World Health Organization (WHO) named it the Omicron variant, and they say it’s a variant of concern.

“This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics,” said WHO Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove.

To put this into perspective, scientists say the new Omicron variant has 50 mutations compared to only two in the Delta variant.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Steve Threlkeld says there are enough mutations in this new variant to present a new set of problems.

“I think what we don’t know yet is exactly how much more contagious and exactly which of these mutations will transmit into the more important problem. And that is how much resistance against our previous immunity, both against the vaccine and against prior infections,” Threlkeld said.

The Omicron variant has not been confirmed in the United States but has been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, and Belgium.

As a result, several countries have announced travel restrictions including Italy, Austria, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, the Netherlands, Malta, Malaysia, Morocco, Philippines, and Dubai.

Threlkeld says while there’s still a lot to learn about the Omicron variant, it’s important not to let your guard down.

“You want to react in a smart fashion, and efficiently and aggressively, but obviously you want to react based on facts and not based on rumors and reports that are so early, that really they can’t lead us to reasonable actions,” he said.

Scientists say it’s too early to tell the full impact of the mutations on vaccine efficacy, but stress that the COVID-19 shots are still the best tool against the virus.

As of Wednesday, more than 519,000 people in Shelby County have been vaccinated.

For more information about where to get vaccinated in Shelby County, click here.

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