As new COVID-19 variant sparks global fear, Arizona health expert weighs in

As Arizona and other states deal with a big spike in COVID-19 cases, health leaders are scrambling to assess the possible impact of a new strain of COVID-19.

Related: Omicron variant: What to know about the new COVID-19 strain

South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It's unclear where the new variant actually arose, but it was first detected by scientists in South Africa and has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

It appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.

Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest the new variant has mutations "consistent with enhanced transmissibility," but said that "the significance of many of the mutations is still not known."

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described omicron as "the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen," including potentially worrying changes never before seen all in the same virus.

On Nov. 26, President Joe Biden commented on his decision to implement travel restrictions to try and prevent the new variant from reaching the U.S.

Related: US, Canada, EU, Japan restrict South Africa travel over Omicron variant

"We don't know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern. It seems to spread rapidly," said President Biden. "I spent about a half hour this morning with my COVID Team, led by Doctor Fauci, and so that was the decision we made."

The travel restrictions go into effect on Monday, Nov. 29.

Health experts speak out

Dr. Wassim Ballan, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Phoenix Children's Hospital, is keeping a close eye on the variant. He and other researchers say it is still too early to tell the actual threat of the virus.

"It may be more transmissible than other variants," said Dr. Ballan.

Meanwhile, Will Humble with the Arizona Public Health Association talked about the travel restrictions. He says the restrictions are not the right move, and only makes countries hesitant to report their data.

"Quite honestly, these travel restrictions are not a long-term solution, or even a very good midterm solution," said Humble. "In my opinion, these are just a knee-jerk reaction."

Humble says more information is needed before big decisions like travel restrictions are put in place.

The variant is so new, there is not much research available, other than it is highly transmissible, and can possibly get around the immunity people have built up so far.

"The big thing we have not done is a police change, which would be to compel both Moderna and Pfizer to share their intellectual property, so other countries can make their vaccines," said Humble.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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