It might take weeks to understand Omicron variant, says global health scholar

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Nihar Patel

The Omicron variant of COVID was first identified by South Africa’s government this month, and that it has several mutations. Dr. Anthony Fauci believes it’s in the U.S. — as it has spread to Europe and Canada too. The U.S. has banned travel from South Africa and seven other African countries. 

It remains unknown how contagious Omicron is and whether current vaccines will be effective against it, but that information should be available within two to three weeks, says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He points out that it’s currently unclear whether the Omicron variant is causing the current COVID-19 surge in South Africa or if it’s surfing the surge.

He says the variant could have originated in southern African countries due to the area’s large population of immunocompromised people, including more than 7.5 million HIV-positive residents. 

“One theory around how variants are generated is that the virus mutates and enters a person who's immunocompromised. And that person never regains health status to expel the virus. And so the virus lives on and mutates continually within immunocompromised people,” Morrison explains.

He adds, “We shouldn't be surprised that when you have that factor, and then you have only 25% of your population fully vaccinated in South Africa, very high vaccine refusals, and vaccine hesitancy, you can have uncontrolled transmission, uncontrolled replication, and an enormous population that has compromised immune systems.”

And he says that the hoarding of COVID vaccines by the wealthiest countries might play a role in the emergence of new variants like Omicron.

“We made a terrible error in not having an approach that could walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, an approach that took care of our own requirements here at home, but also fully appreciated the need ... in low-income countries where uncontrolled transmission is only going to throw forward new variants.”



  • Stephen Morrison - director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies