COLUMBIA, S.C. — B.1.1.529 is the newest COVID-19 mutation. It's known as the Omicron variant. According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), no cases of the Omicron variant have been reported, as of Monday.
"It's not detected in the U.S. yet, but will be within a couple of days," said Dr. Helmut Albrecht, Infectious Disease Director at PRISMA Health. "It’s almost, certainly already here."
Albrecht said it's mathematically impossible for the variant to not already be in the United States.
"Previous infection will likely not protect you from this if your infection was more than 5 months ago," Albrecht said.
He explains the variant is easily detected during any lab tests.
"The spike protein has a S-gene drop out," Albrecht said. "So you don’t have to sequence the entire virus, you can find it in the preliminary test."
According to DHEC, the agency is working closely with the CDC to learn more about the variant. In a statement:
"DHEC is closely monitoring the emerging information on the newly-identified Omicron variant as well as the Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) guidance on it. At this time, the CDC and DHEC have not identified any cases in South Carolina through sequencing of randomly selected positive samples.
DHEC’s sequencing would detect any variant present in those specimens, including variants like Omicron that are not declared Variants of Concern (VOC) by the CDC. The federal agency has not yet listed Omicron on its VOC list. DHEC tracks VOC on its variant webpage and updates the list as needed based on the latest CDC determinations.
Information about the Omicron variant such as illness severity, transmissibility compared to other variants, and the effectiveness of current vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments against it are not known at this time as data and information continues to be gathered."
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin says if cases do start to appear in the Midlands, he might consider another mask mandate.
"We’re following the data, that’s what we’ve always done," Benjamin said. "We’ve followed the data, we use data to give intelligence, and intelligence helps you create policy. Our one true North Star has always been the preservation of human life. That's been our focus, and we've been focused on that like a laser beam. Once you protect lives, then you protect livelihoods. We've been trying to make sure that we do that right things for the right reasons."
Albrecht said health officials still don't know how serious or fatal the variant is. According to the World Health Organization, people are experiencing milder symptoms.
Albrecht says receiving the COVID vaccine and booster shot is the best known way to prevent getting the virus or to keep it from being as severe as it might otherwise be.