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KPBS Midday Edition

Highly mutated omicron variant likely already spreading in US

Illustration of coronavirus structure.
Courtesy of CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS
An undated illustration of the coronavirus structure.

While existing fears over a potential holiday surge in COVID-19 cases were already generating concern, health officials are now sounding the alarm over a new variant.

First detected in South Africa, the omicron variant is believed to have more mutations than previous COVID-19 variants.

That could make it more contagious and possibly more resistant to vaccine immunity, but researchers say much remains to be learned about Omicron.

President Joe Biden addressed the rising alarm over omicron in remarks Monday morning, and said that the new variant "is a cause for concern, but not a cause for panic."

In response, the U.S. has instituted a number of travel bans for South Africa and other neighboring countries where the variant has been detected.

Highly mutated Omicron variant likely already spreading in US
Listen to this story by Matt Hoffman.

Dr. Davey Smith, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego, said travel bans are not an effective measure against the spread of the new variant as omicron is likely already circulating in the United States.

"The big fallout behind this is that we penalize countries who did a very good job by going out, sequencing the virus, doing their surveillance and then alerting the world — and then all of a sudden the world says, 'Now you're banned,'" Smith said.

He joined Midday Edition on Monday with more details on the new variant.

Highly mutated omicron variant likely already spreading in US