Tracking COVID-19 variants and how quickly the virus mutates

Dr. Shirley says all viruses mutate and some faster than others but COVID-19 is a new virus so there’s still much to learn about it.
Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 6:43 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 1, 2021 at 6:51 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The first case of the new Omicron variant has been confirmed in the United States. Federal health officials announced the discovery during a briefing Wednesday.

NBC15 checked in with local health officials who are closely monitoring the variants. As the spotlight now shines on Omicron, the Delta variant is still a concern.

There are several COVID-19 variants out there, but currently the World Health Organization is identifying Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and now Omicron as variants of concern.

According to the WHO, the following is the criteria for “designated variants of concern”:

  • Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; OR
  • Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR
  • Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.

Lamda and Mu are listed as “variants of interest”. Right now, health officials are working to learn how big of an impact Omicron will have on the pandemic progress made so far.

“Because this virus is something new, our immune system hasn’t had time to check it well. It’s really about having this consistent community spread that allows this to happen so fast,” said Dr. Dan Shirley, UW Health’s Interim Medical Director of Infection Prevention.

Dr. Shirley says all viruses mutate and some faster than others but COVID-19 is a new virus so there’s still much to learn about it.

SSM Health officials are also monitoring variants of concern.

“We’ll have to see what happens over the next couple years but this pandemic will become and endemic and we’ll have this much like the flu, which mutates all the time,” said Dr. David Ottenbaker, VP of Ambulatory Clinical Programs as SSM Health Wisconsin.

Dr. Ottenbaker says we’ve come a long way in the pandemic and despite the variants, he believes we’re in a much better position to fight the pandemic than before vaccines were available.

Right now, health officials and scientists are working to learn how effective the COVID-19 vaccines are against the new variant.

“We’re looking at that very closely and we’ll know more over the next couple of weeks,” said Ottenbaker.

Pfizer and Moderna are also reportedly preparing to reformulate its vaccines if needed to better protect people against Omicron. In the meantime, health officials say don’t wait to get vaccinated for those who have yet to do so.

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