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'No reason to panic' about new omicron COVID-19 variant yet, Houston expert says

Researchers are concerned "omicron" may be more transmissible and have mutations that make vaccines less effective.

HOUSTON — A new COVID-19 variant dubbed omicron by the World Health Organization has sparked a new wave of concerns. Health officials say there’s a surge of cases in South Africa.

Cases have also been reported in Israel, Belgium, Hong Kong and other African countries. 

Dr. Peter Hotez, an expert with the Baylor College of Medicine, doesn't think this new variant is anything to panic about yet.

“I have not seen strong evidence that it's more transmissible than delta. The UK government says it might be, and it might be,” Dr. Hotez said.

In addition to potentially being more transmissible, the other concern is Omicron has mutations that may make vaccines less effective. Dr. Hotez said that’s an issue seen with other variants before.

“We had “beta” out of South Africa. It never really took off. We had “lambda” out of South America. It never took off. This may not take off. The key is knowing its transmissibility,” Dr. Hotez said. “Worst case scenario, studies show it is much more transmissible than delta and has high immune escape potential, then we have to go to Plan B and start designing boosters, but I think we’re a long way away from that yet.”

The U.S. and other countries have announced travel restrictions to try to prevent the variant from coming here. They apply to eight African countries beginning Monday, but don't include U.S. citizens.

Dr. Hotez said he’s not a fan of travel bans because, while the new variant hasn’t been detected in the U.S, he assumes it’s probably here already.

“I think they’re counterproductive,” Dr. Hotez said. “If we need to do it over the next few days until we know what we’re dealing with, I guess that’s fine, but I think in the long run they’re not very effective.”

“I feel bad because I know it’s impacting their travel industry and everything and a lot of their economy is based on the travel industry so I hate to hear this," said Rose Mary Macintosh, who lived on and off in South Africa for six years said.

She said the pandemic kept her from traveling back but she knows others there who are affected by the new travel restrictions. However, Macintosh is glad to see health officials doing what they can to stop the spread of Omicron.

“You have to applaud them for being right there, being transparent, putting it out there and saying look, we see a new variant out there and letting the world know; here we go, let’s get on top of this,” Macintosh said.

While health officials are keeping a close eye on omicron, Dr. Hotez says the delta variant is still a very real concern. He expects it to cause another surge of cases in Texas this winter.

Dr. Hotez said the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated, and if you’re eligible, get the booster shot.

Here's a Twitter thread from Dr. Hotez on the omicron variant

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