By LAURA UNGAR and ANDREW MELDRUM, Associated Press

As the omicron coronavirus variant spreads in southern Africa and appears in countries around the world, scientists anxiously watch a battle that could determine the future of the pandemic. Can the last dominant delta competitor in the world supplant it?

Some scientists, looking at data from South Africa and the UK, suggest the omicron may come out on top.

“It’s still the beginning, but more and more data is starting to come in suggesting that omicron is likely to supplant delta in many, if not all, places,” said Dr Jacob Lemieux, who is monitoring variants for a long time. Harvard-led research collaboration. Medicine School. “Certainly, it is potentially alarming. “

But others said on Monday it was too early to know how likely the omicron is to spread more efficiently than the delta, or, if so, how quickly it could gain the upper hand. .

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“Especially here in the United States, where we are seeing significant increases in the delta, I think we will find out in about two weeks, I think we will find out in about two weeks,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of virology. clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Many critical questions about omicron remain unanswered, including whether the virus causes milder or more severe illness and to what extent it could evade immunity to the disease or past COVID-19 vaccines.

Regarding the spread, scientists point to what is happening in South Africa, where the omicron was first detected. Omicron’s speed in infecting people and achieving near-dominance in South Africa has health experts feared the country is at the start of a new wave that could overwhelm hospitals.

The new variant quickly took South Africa from a period of low transmission, with an average of less than 200 new cases per day in mid-November, to over 16,000 per day over the weekend. . Omicron accounts for more than 90% of new cases in Gauteng province, the epicenter of the new wave, experts say. The new variant spreads rapidly and becomes dominant in the other eight provinces of South Africa.

“The virus is spreading extremely fast, very quickly,” said Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute. “If you look at the slopes of this wave we’re in right now, it’s a much steeper slope than the first three waves South Africa experienced. This indicates that it is spreading rapidly, so it can be a very transmissible virus. “

But Hanekom, who is also co-chair of the South African COVID-19 Variant Research Consortium, said South Africa had such a low number of delta cases when the omicron emerged, “I don’t think so. not that we can say “that it has surpassed the delta.

Scientists say it’s not clear whether omicron will behave the same in other countries as it does in South Africa. Lemieux said there were already some clues as to how he might behave; in places like the UK, which does a lot of genomic sequencing, he said, “we are seeing what appears to be a signal of an exponential increase in the omicron relative to the delta.”

In the United States, as in the rest of the world, “there is still a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “But when you put the first data together, you start to see a consistent picture emerge: this omicron is already here, and based on what we’ve seen in South Africa, it’s likely to become the dominant strain within weeks. and the months to come. and will likely cause an increase in the number of cases. “

What this could mean for public health remains to be seen. Hanekom said early data from South Africa shows reinfection rates are much higher with omicron than previous variants, suggesting the virus is somewhat elusive in immunity. It also shows that the virus appears to infect young people, mainly those who are not vaccinated, and most cases in hospitals have been relatively mild.

But Binnicker said things could turn out differently in other parts of the world or in different patient groups. “It will be really interesting to see what happens when more infections potentially occur in the elderly or those with underlying health issues,” he said. “What is the result in these patients? “

As the world waits for answers, scientists are suggesting people do everything possible to protect themselves.

“We want to make sure that people have as much immunity as possible against vaccination. So if people aren’t 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 to be effective in reducing transmission – masking and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings, especially without masks. “

The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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