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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

A Cleveland Clinic doctor says omicron is likely here and explains what you need to know about it

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has not yet shown up in any Cleveland labs, but researchers expect that it will show up in sequencing in the coming weeks. The concern is that this variant could be more transmissible than the highly contagious delta variant, according to medical experts.

The Ideastream Health Team is working to answer listeners’ questions about the omicron variant of the coronavirus and the vaccines, with the help from local experts in a range of fields. You can send us your questions with our online form, through our social media group, or call us at 216-916-6476. We'll keep the answers coming on our website and on the air.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus, which the World Health Organization recently designated as a variant of concern after it was discovered to be spreading quickly throughout South Africa, has not yet been detected in Northeast Ohio or anywhere in the U.S. – but it will likely be found here soon, according to medical experts.

“There’s a good chance that it’s somewhere in the states, or it will show up soon if it’s not already here,” said Dr. Daniel Rhoads, section head of microbiology at Cleveland Clinic.

The omicron variant has not yet been identified in samples in any Cleveland labs, but sequencing of new samples can take several weeks, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if omicron shows up in the not-too-distant future,” Rhoads said.

Rhoads is one of the researchers who track genetic sequencing of the coronavirus in the Cleveland area. When a person tests positive for COVID-19, the sample is sent to a lab, where researchers study the strain and its genetic mutations, he said.

Currently, the predominant strain showing up in labs is the delta variant - the highly transmissible variant that caused a surge in cases in hospitalizations in the late summer and fall, Rhoads said.

"Delta pretty much crowded out alpha and all the other variants that were around, so knowing that there's this novel variant that's been able to spread, in the face of delta, is what's concerning," he said.

The newly identified omicron variant is worrisome to scientists because it has about 50 mutations in its genome – which means it likely spreads more easily and infects people quicker than other strains, he said. Delta, the most contagious strain of the virus known so far, has less than 20 mutations, by comparison, he said.

The virus is constantly mutating, he added, but the concern, in this case, is that these mutations may help the virus attach to the body’s cells and infect people easier, he said.

The omicron strain appears to be quickly spreading in South Africa, so researchers believe it could be more transmissible than the delta variant, Rhoads added.

“If it’s really able to crowd out delta, I think that would be something that would be remarkable. I think there is concern of that, but it’s going to take weeks to figure that out,” he said.

Additionally, because of the omicron variant’s unique mutations, there is concern that the current COVID-19 vaccines will be less effective against it, Rhoads said.

The vaccines will still likely prevent individuals from getting a severe case of the virus, Rhoads added, especially for those who have received a booster shot. 

“We expect the vaccines to work against omicron, it’s just not clear they’re going to work as well,” he said. “All the scientists and the medical community [are] hesitant to make any assumptions or make any claims before we have good evidence.”

The bottom line, Rhoads added, is there is simply not enough data yet to determine how big of a threat the new variant is. More research is needed to determine whether it causes more severe illness, and the vaccines have not yet been tested against it, he said.

“It’s too soon to tell what this is going to mean in terms of clinical outcomes, infectivity, symptoms. People are watching it very closely,” Rhoads said. “I think it will take a few days or weeks to have a large enough sample size and be confident enough in the data to come to a conclusion.”

In the meantime, Rhoads encourages people to take the same precautions that have been recommended throughout the pandemic – such as masking up in indoor public places and getting the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters if eligible, he said.

Anyone over the age of 18 who is six months out from receiving the COVID-19 vaccines is recommended for a booster shot.

Copyright 2021 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.