Alarm grows after emergence of new omicron COVID-19 variant. Here’s what you need to know

A newly emerged variant of the coronavirus known as “omicron” is causing widespread concern. First discovered in South Africa, it's now been detected in multiple nations, including Europe and Israel. Many nations including the U.S. are considering travel bans to try and contain the variant. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    They're calling it Omicron, and its emergence is reverberating around the world tonight.

    Key questions remain unanswered, but this new mutation of the coronavirus has already prompted a wave of reactions. Word of the new variant triggered crowded scenes at airports, heavy selling on world markets, and appeals from health experts not to panic.

    The World Health Organization held an emergency meeting in Geneva, and one of its top COVID researchers, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said this new version of the virus appears highly transmissible.

  • Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, World Health Organization:

    What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that, when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.

  • William Brangham:

    The WHO designated the new variant as Omicron. It first emerged in Southern Africa. And the first reported case outside of the continent was in Belgium.

  • Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgian Health Minister (through translator):

    We have one confirmed case. It is someone who came from abroad. He was not vaccinated and had no prior infection. But I want to repeat that this is a suspicious variant. We don't know if it's a very dangerous variant.

  • William Brangham:

    Although it is still unclear how effective COVID vaccines are against this new variant, some South African scientists said today they believe that current shots will still prevent severe disease. but alarm is growing in nations already facing an uptick in infections due to the Delta variant.

  • Sajid Javid, British Health Minister:

    It may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and it — and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it.

  • William Brangham:

    Many European nations that were facing this Delta wave were contemplating lockdowns before Omicron appeared. Today, a number of European governments banned flights from South Africa, despite the WHO's call to avoid any hasty reactions.

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen:

  • Ursula von der Leyen, President, European Commission:

    All air travel to these countries should be suspended. They should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant.

  • William Brangham:

    U.S. officials also met today and issued a travel ban affecting seven Southern African countries.

    In Nantucket, Massachusetts, President Biden said he wants to proceed with caution.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: We don't know a lot about the variant, except that there's a concern it is of great concern. It seems to spread rapidly.

  • William Brangham:

    In Cape Town, South Africa travelers rushed to get on flights.

  • Julie Carlem, Traveler:

    My family live in Australia, and I'm going back to see them before the country shuts down. So I don't know when I will able to return. I had to leave my job behind.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, oil prices and stock markets around the world plummeted over fears of the Omicron variant and its potential economic fallout. The Dow fell 905 points. That's 2.5 percent, marking its worst one-day percentage loss in a year. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also dropped more than 2 percent.

    So, clearly, this new variant is generating many questions and concerns.

    For some perspective, I'm joined again tonight by Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University.

    Dr. Jha, always great to see you.

    The markets are spooked. Travel restrictions are being implemented. I don't want to panic anyone unnecessarily. So, in your perspective, how concerned should we be?

    Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean, Brown University School of Public Health: So, good evening. William. Thanks for having me back.

    You know, we have seen variants come and go, and every month or two, we hear about one. This one is concerning. This one is different. There's a lot of features here that have me and many of us concerned about this, and we really need more information, but we have got to pay attention to this variant.

  • William Brangham:

    So what are the things that jump to mind as most concerning off the top of the bat?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so first and foremost is, we have seen a huge uptick of this variant in South Africa, that it has really taken off very, very quickly, much faster than we saw the Delta or the Alpha variant, suggesting, not proving, but suggesting that it may be a lot more contagious.

    And then there are mutations on this virus that really make many of us concerned that our vaccine effectiveness may take a hit as well. So there are several features here that I think have a lot of us looking for more data and just concerned about where this is going.

  • William Brangham:

    That concern about the effectiveness of vaccines, I know, is top of mind for many Americans, basically anyone that has gotten a vaccine already.

    How will we know when or whether this variant is punching through the vaccine?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    So, we should actually have some preliminary data in the next few days.

    We're doing laboratory studies right now, looking at serum, basically blood of people who've been vaccinated, and saying that do the antibodies that the vaccines generate, can they neutralize this virus?

    We will have that data, I think, maybe within even a week. That will be extremely helpful. There are going to be more careful studies that will be needed. But that might take longer. But that alone, I think, will help a lot.

  • William Brangham:

    And what about the concern over whether this variant makes people who do get infected sicker?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, that's always one of the critical questions that we ask about variants. We have no information about that right now. There's a few anecdotal stories, but we really need extensive testing. We need to get a good grip on how many people have been infected, hospitalizations, and deaths.

    All those data need to be put together. That's probably many, many weeks away before we have a good answer on that question.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, one of the reasons that we know about this variant is because the South Africans have a great research community. They do a lot of genomic sequencing, much more so than we do here, which leads some people to make the assumption that this variant is already in America.

    Do you believe that that's true? And, if so, what does that mean for us?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, I think it's possible that it's here in the United States. We know it's in Belgium. We know it's in parts of Asia. It wouldn't be surprising if it's here in the U.S.

    If it isn't, it will get here very quickly. Again, one of the things about South Africa is, they do such a good job of surveillance that they often identify things early. It doesn't mean it started there. It doesn't even mean it that it's most prominent there. We have got to look more carefully within the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    So, with all these European nations and now the United States announcing some kind of travel ban, does that strike you as a good strategy? Should we be doing that? Or, as some people have suggested, are we unfairly punishing the South Africans and others for alerting us to this threat?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so here's what we know about the data about travel bans.

    Travel bans, assuming that most of the cases are in South Africa, or Southern Africa, travel bans will slow the spread of those — of that virus into the U.S. by probably about a week or two compared to if we didn't have a travel ban at all. That's helpful on the margins.

    But there's no doubt there's a cost here. And the cost is that we're taking a country that's done a fabulous job, has identified the variant, been very open and transparent, and we're punishing them for it. So, net-net, I'm not sure it's such a good policy. In the long run, it may have a chilling effect on other countries, who may say, well, maybe we don't want to share variant information, if we're going to have travel bans.

    So we want to be very careful as we tread on this issue.

  • William Brangham:

    In addition to this variant, we know that Delta has been causing an enormous problem in Europe and still here in parts of the United States.

    And we know that these variants in some ways compete for dominance. Do you have a sense of why Delta is wreaking such havoc in Europe right now?

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Yes, Delta is — until again, this new variant — and we will see what happens with this new one.

    But until this appeared, Delta was by far the most contagious variant we had seen. And Europe is going through its winter, and weather is getting colder. People are coming inside. And they have not seen the kind of Delta wave that the Southern part of the United States saw, that India saw.

    So, essentially, what you have in Europe is a lot of unvaccinated people, so people who have chosen not to be vaccinated, colder weather, people spending more time indoors, and relaxation of any public health measures like masks or social distancing.

    And that's really what's driving these huge surges in cases across Europe.

  • William Brangham:

    And, right now, we just don't have any way of knowing whether this variant will become the preeminent variant. It's too early to tell.

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    It's really early to tell.

    It has happened to some extent in South Africa. That's what concerns all of us, how quickly that has happened. But whether that will play out in the rest of the world, we just don't know right now.

  • William Brangham:

    On the issue of global vaccine equity, I mean, we know that variants are created when viruses can replicate unchecked.

    And even if you put aside the moral argument for why we should be getting vaccines elsewhere in the world, from a purely selfish standpoint, this seems to be a textbook example as to why we should be getting vaccines to the countries that need it the most, to stop this from happening.

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Absolutely.

    This pandemic doesn't end until most of the world is vaccinated. And while we have made progress in many, many parts of the world, Africa, the continent of Africa, has really been lacking in vaccine supply. We have just not done a good enough job.

    Now, the U.S. government might say, we have sent a couple of 100 million doses abroad. That's good, not nearly enough. And the Europeans have not done enough as well. So I think all of us have to make a much more concerted effort to get vaccines out globally, particularly to the people of Africa.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Ashish Jha, always good to see you. Thank you very much for being here.

  • Dr. Ashish Jha:

    Thank you.

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