It’s the last thing Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, or the world in general, needs — another coronavirus variant, one that could end up being more dangerous than the ones that came before it.
But on Friday, nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world raced Friday to contain the new variant, named “omicron” by a World Health Organization panel. The WHO classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which continues to drive higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.
“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden said, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”
Omicron’s actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
Dr. Christa Gieszl, vice chair of the Pitkin County Board of Health, said Friday that she learned of the new variant a few days ago. She said there’s little doubt the health board will be discussing it at its next meeting on Dec. 9.
Though global stock markets reacted strongly to news of the variant on Friday morning — the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points and the S&P 500 index closed down 2.3%, its worst day since February — Gieszl said it’s too soon to be pressing any panic buttons.
“I woke up this morning and saw the headlines, and I was concerned,” she said Friday afternoon. “I’ve actually been hearing about it over the past week and keeping an eye on it. …We’re seeing higher rates of transmissibility, higher than we’ve had with the other variants, and possibly higher than the delta variant.”
Gieszl said the omicron variant’s concerning features are its large number of mutations. There are questions as to whether current COVID-19 vaccinations will be effective against it. Though the omicron variant is spreading rapidly in parts of southern Africa, it also has been detected in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium.
“I feel like we need more information on that because South Africa does not have good rates of vaccinations at all. They also have completely different vaccines than we do, so it’s probably premature to discuss it [from the standpoint of vaccinations].”
The slowness of bringing vaccines to other parts of the world, such as southern Africa, likely played a role in the development of the omicron variant, Gieszl added.
“This virus can’t mutate if people can’t get it and transmit it to each other,” she said, adding that it is still important for people to become vaccinated and follow up with boosters as a defense against COVID-19 and its variants.
In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.
The White House said the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. Biden said that means “no travel” to or from the designated countries except for returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents who test negative.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.
Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.
Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant. Asked why the U.S. was waiting until Monday, Biden said only: "Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team.”
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”
Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert. Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know that for sure right now,” he told CNN.
Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island, where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new variant was “a great concern” that “should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations.”
He called anew for unvaccinated Americans to get their widely available doses and for governments to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines so they can be more rapidly manufactured around the world.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.