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Battle of Coronavirus Mutants Critical 12/07 06:14


   (AP) -- As the omicron coronavirus variant spreads in southern Africa and 
pops up in countries all around the world, scientists are anxiously watching a 
battle play out that could determine the future of the pandemic. Can the latest 
competitor to the world-dominating delta overthrow it?

   Some scientists, poring over data from South Africa and the United Kingdom, 
suggest omicron could emerge the victor.

   "It's still early days, but increasingly, data is starting to trickle in, 
suggesting that omicron is likely to outcompete delta in many, if not all, 
places," said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research 
collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.

   But others said Monday it's too soon to know how likely it is that omicron 
will spread more efficiently than delta, or, if it does, how fast it might take 

   "Especially here in the U.S., where we're seeing significant surges in 
delta, whether omicron's going to replace it I think we'll know in about two 
weeks," said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in 
Rochester, Minnesota.

   Many critical questions about omicron remain unanswered, including whether 
the virus causes milder or more severe illness and how much it might evade 
immunity from past COVID-19 illness or vaccines.

   On the issue of spread, scientists point to what's happening in South 
Africa, where omicron was first detected. Omicron's speed in infecting people 
and achieving near dominance in South Africa has health experts worried that 
the country is at the start of a new wave that may come to overwhelm hospitals.

   The new variant rapidly moved South Africa from a period of low 
transmission, averaging less than 200 new cases per day in mid-November, to 
more than 16,000 per day over the weekend. Omicron accounts for more than 90% 
of the new cases in Gauteng province, the epicenter of the new wave, according 
to experts. The new variant is rapidly spreading and achieving dominance in 
South Africa's eight other provinces.

   "The virus is spreading extraordinarily fast," said Willem Hanekom, director 
of the Africa Health Research Institute. "If you look at the slopes of this 
wave that we're in at the moment, it's a much steeper slope than the first 
three waves that South Africa experienced. This indicates that it's spreading 
fast and it may therefore be a very transmissible virus."

   But Hanekom, who is also co-chair the South African COVID-19 Variants 
Research Consortium, said South Africa had such low numbers of delta cases when 
omicron emerged, "I don't think we can say" it out-competed delta.

   Scientists say it's unclear whether omicron will behave the same way in 
other countries as it has in South Africa. Lemieux said there are already some 
hints about how it may behave; in places like the United Kingdom, which does a 
lot of genomic sequencing, he said, "we're seeing what appears to be a signal 
of exponential increase of omicron over delta."

   In the United States, as in the rest of the world, "there's still a lot of 
uncertainty," he said. "But when you put the early data together, you start to 
see a consistent picture emerge: that omicron is already here, and based on 
what we've observed in South Africa, it's likely to become the dominant strain 
in the coming weeks and months and will likely cause a surge in case numbers."

   What that could mean for public health remains to be seen. Hanekom said 
early data from South Africa shows that reinfection rates are much higher with 
omicron than previous variants, suggesting the virus is escaping immunity 
somewhat. It also shows the virus seems to be infecting younger people, mostly 
those who are unvaccinated, and most cases in hospitals have been relatively 

   But Binnicker said things could play out differently in other parts of the 
world or in different groups of patients. "It'll be really interesting to see 
what happens when more infections potentially occur in older adults or those 
with underlying health conditions," he said. "What's the outcome in those 

   As the world waits for answers, scientists suggest people do all they can to 
protect themselves.

   "We want to make sure that people have as much immunity from vaccination as 
possible. So if people are not vaccinated they should get vaccinated," Lemieux 
said. "If people are eligible for boosters, they should get boosters, and then 
do all the other things that we know are effective for reducing transmission -- 
masking and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings, 
particularly without masks."

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