U.Md. infectious disease expert ‘wouldn’t be surprised’ if Omicron was already in US

Michelle Basch speaks with University of Maryland professor and infectious disease expert Dr. Gregory Schrank.

North America saw its first case of the Omicron variant confirmed by Canada on Sunday as officials from countries on opposite sides of the world reacted to news of its impact in Africa. That reaction may be coming too late at the federal and local level.

The Biden administration’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News that the U.S. would begin travel bans from several southern African countries beginning on Monday.

On Sunday, WTOP asked University of Maryland infectious disease expert Dr. Gregory Schrank if responses to the Omicron variant will be too late to have an impact.

“I think there have been cases described in Europe, and elsewhere, where there was not a direct travel link to southern Africa; suggesting community transmission in those locations,” Schrank said. “And I would not be surprised, to be honest, if there were cases here already in the United States that we were not yet aware of.”

Schrank said that limitations for research teams in southern Africa, whom he said should be applauded for their discovery and response, can also make it difficult to track the virus.

He also said that the lack of information about the recently discovered variant, and the number of mutations that help evade immunity, are of special concern.

“But, as you said, this was just identified days ago and so we really do not yet fully understand the implications of this virus variant and what it will mean for the effectiveness of our vaccines,” he said, “what types of illness they call, whether in the unvaccinated or vaccinated, and so on.”

In an interview on Saturday, Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virus expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, also acknowledged may take weeks to develop an understanding of this virus.

“What we really need is a week or two to sort of see — is this really spreading at a faster rate than other variants when we look at all the cases of COVID-19 in parts of southern Africa,” he said in part.

Schrank said that U.S. citizens benefit from something that areas of Africa don’t benefit from — high access to free COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. While those vaccines have been controversial, that access will be critical to fighting the variant.

What about D.C. area mask mandates?

Protection from the variant, he said would still include wearing a mask or getting vaccinated. Continued testing would be the third, and critical step for tracking and defending ourselves against this coronavirus mutation.

“And that would be testing ourselves when we have symptoms as well as genomic and surveillance testing,” Schrank said. “It was only when we started to see a sharp increase in cases through testing that we could begin to react.”

On Sunday, a D.C. board of education official asked Mayor Muriel Bowser to reconsider a highly criticized mask mandate reversal in the district. Montgomery County’s mask mandate was also revised, and then reinstated, just days before the Omicron variant was discovered.

When asked about local masking rules, Schrank noted that masking is known to be effective at preventing the transmission of COVID-19. However, he noted that our access to the vaccine, and our ability to share that vaccine, may be more vital in our battle against the virus.

“While I’m certainly concerned about the spread of Omicron and vaccine immunity, the reason why we have concerns about Omicron relates to vaccine access,” he told WTOP. “We could make the decision to lead and improve access to lower and middle income communities around the world.”

In fact, Schrank said that this ability to share vaccines may be a strong step toward changing the trajectory of COVID-19, limiting the growth of variants, and building immunity to COVID-19.

WTOP’s earlier conversations with public health researcher Katelyn Jetelina with the University of Texas School of Public Health, highlighted that vaccines are developed with variants in mind.

She said that she hoped the new Omicron variant is still recognizable enough to remain effective.

“I think the real question right now is,” she asked, “can this vaccine and even the booster still recognize those multiple angles and how effectively can they see that?”

WTOP’s Mike Murillo, John Domen, Michelle Basch and Zeke Hartner contributed to this report.

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Ivy Lyons

Ivy Lyons is a digital journalist for WTOP.com. Since 2018, they have worked on Capitol Hill, at NBC News in Washington, and with WJLA in Washington.

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