The new coronavirus variant, Omicron, raises red flags among scientists — but there are more mysteries than answers about its public threat

A healthcare worker at an airport in South Africa is testing for carbon dioxide.

Omicron was labeled a "variant of concern" by the WHO.

There are signs that the B. 1.1.529 variant is more dangerous than other strains.

Scientists have begun to examine Omicron's threat.

Travel restrictions have been put in place in Europe, Asia, and North America due to the spread of a coronaviruses variant that was first detected in South Africa.

Public-health experts say that the new variant, called Omicron, carries a number of different genes that could make it more transmissible or more likely to cause severe disease.

Omicron was labeled a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization on Friday, which means that it requires scrutiny from public-health officials. Preliminary evidence shows that Omicron may increase the risk of reinfection.

Less than 100 of the variant's genome sequences have been reported globally, compared with more than 2 million of Delta's.

Maria van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, said at a Thursday briefing that they don't know much about this variant yet. The concern is that when you have so many changes in the variant, it can affect how the virus behaves.

The University Hospital of Badajoz in Spain has a laboratory that is used to sequence coronaviruses.

It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has.

Many scientists are hoping for answers much sooner than that, according to a UTHealth School of Public Health epidemiologist. She said that the variant could be hidden in some parts of the globe.

Jetelina said that he would not be surprised if it landed in the US. "We have seen it in communities like Turkey, Egypt, Belgium, and Israel."

Omicron has several new, unfamiliar genes.

The first Omicron case was identified by researchers in South Africa on November 9. The majority of known cases are in southern Africa, so scientists are hopeful that they spotted the variant early.

"South Africa has one of the best genomic surveillance systems in the world, so we know that they're constantly evaluating this virus," Jetelina said. "For them to only detect 100 cases thus far in South Africa gives us hope that this is the beginning of the spread."

A number of markers suggest that Omicron is highly transmissible. The average daily cases have risen thirteenfold since the variant was first discovered in South Africa.

A nurse from Doctors Without Borders performs a COVID-19 test on a health worker.

Delta and Alpha are two of the worrisomemutations found in Omicron that could help it spread, render vaccines less effective, or lead to more severe disease.

The new variant has some new quirks.

There are a number of genes that we don't have any information about. They've never seen them before. One of the first questions is: What are these? Do we need to worry about them?

The variant's spike protein has been found to have 32 different variations, which are the bumps on the surface of the virus that help it invade our cells. There are other variant of concern that have fewer spikes.

"The key into our cells is the spikeProtein, so once that changes for better or for worse, then we need to really pay attention to it," Jetelina said. "That is probably what is causing this increase in cases in South Africa right now."

Public-health experts say there is no need for panic.

It doesn't suggest that Omicron will pose a greater challenge to vaccines than other variant of concern, even if there is a higher number of mutations.

"We don't know if the new variant is better than Delta," Jetelina said. We don't know if it will be able to evade our vaccines.

Mike Ryan, WHO's director of health emergencies, speaks during a press conference at the WHO headquarters.

Lab studies are still being done to determine how well coronaviruses can hold up against Omicron. They're watching to see how quickly the variant spreads, particularly in countries with higher vaccination rates. South Africa has a lower percentage of fully-vaccinated people than the US.

"We need to hold tight to see how this plays out and what our next move is," Jetelina said.

Moderna, BioNTech-Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson all said on Friday that they were testing their vaccines against Omicron.

Jetelina said that people who have been fully vaccined and wear masks in public shouldn't feel like they have to change their behavior.

The executive director of WHO's health-emergencies program shared a similar message on Thursday.

We pick up variations of the virus. It is not the end of the world. The sky is not falling. I don't want people to spend their lives worrying about the next variant because there is an idea that we're just waiting for the next variant.

Business Insider has an original article.