World Health Organization panel calls omicron a 'variant of concern'

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The World Health Organization panel is urging folks not to overreact to news of the new COVID-19 variant named "omicron" emerging from South Africa.

Several nations moved to stop air travel from South Africa and surrounding nations. Stocks also dropped in the U.S., Asia and Europe in reaction to the potential of a more transmissible COVID-19 variant.


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The WHO panel has classified Omicron as a highly transmissible virus of concern.

On Friday, the panel said evidence suggests there's an increased risk of reinfection, but there's no indication yet that it causes more severe illness.

Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious disease expert at Memorial Hermann, said it's too early to know if the new variant is more impactful than the delta variant.

"It was detected in Hong Kong from a traveler from South Africa," Yancey said. "So, the World Health Organization is springing into action. They are going to get us more information in days to come. So, what I would say is, don't let your guard down but it's still too soon to panic."

This new evidence was announced during the holiday weekend, as millions of Americans traveled and some families gathered for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Dr. Yancey said for those traveling, there are some precautions they should consider when they return home.


"It's very important to know that if you have been around other people at airports, at family gatherings, and you begin to feel sick please go ahead and get tested early," Yancey said. "Don't tough it out at work for a few days. Be respectful of the health of people around you, and if you start feeling sick, figure out what's causing it right away."

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She said for those traveling through the airport, there are a couple of safety tips to keep in mind.

"Remember that the airport is a much more dangerous situation than the airplane because airplanes have really good circulation," Yancey said. "Whereas in a terminal, you are sharing air with thousands and thousands of people, so wear a mask. If possible some airports have terraces where you can wait outside. That's a safe thing to do, and rather than eat and drink in the airport, get your food and wait and eat it on the plane. That's just going to be a safer thing to do."

George Murr, a Houston native, said his wife is a physician and he's concerned what this new variant means for the health of their child and family.

"My first question is, is the current vaccine going to be effective against it and to what degree?" Murr told ABC13. "Because that is our best tool against the virus. So is this going to continue to protect us?"


Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, created a Twitter thread to answer these questions. In it, Jha wrote that it would be highly unlikely that the omicron variant could render the vaccine useless. Though he noted, his concern about the transmissibility of this new variant.

Larry Schooler, who visited family for the holidays, said his first concern is whether this will create another disruption to schools and businesses. Schooler said his family will continue to follow guidance from the CDC. He and his wife also said it was important to make sure their children returned to school in person after their children struggled with remote learning.

"I wonder how it is or isn't going to evolve or impact our community differently than delta," Schooler said. "Because Delta was almost like the whole pandemic starting over again from where I'm sitting. It felt like we literally started from March 2020, again in July or August of 2021, and so certainly if we were in for that, it would be helpful to understand that. It impacts everything about my work. Everything about my wife's work. We can thank goodness have the ability to continue working virtually, but a lot of people don't and our clients and customers don't. Of course, if it impacts school we certainly need to know that."

Yoshihiro Murakami, who has lived in Houston for 15 years, said he is not concerned about hearing this discovery and will continue to decide what is best for his health and his family's health.

"To be honest, I'm not really worried about it," Murakami said. "My wife would be the one worried more about it. I actually haven't gotten the vaccine. Then my workplace, they haven't made me get the vaccine yet. If people are scared, they should get the shot, but for me, I'm just going to stay away. Try to stay healthy in my own way."

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