Dec 1, 2021 - Health

U.S. on the lookout for Omicron cases

Illustration of a surveillance camera with a covid cell in the middle
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Laboratories across the U.S. are on the lookout for the new COVID-19 variant Omicron, which officials have said will almost inevitably be detected here.

Why it matters: The world is on high alert as scientists race to understand if the variant could be a game-changer in the pandemic. Early detection, in theory, gives officials more time to understand its characteristics and respond.

The big picture: CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday the U.S. has a "robust" surveillance system.

  • She pointed to U.S. international travel policies that require pre-departure testing both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated. "We do have the mechanisms in place we need to find it should and when it occurs," she said.
  • The CDC also announced it planned to expand surveillance at four U.S. airports, CNN reported.

Yes, but: Some public health experts have raised the question about whether the new variant omicron may have already arrived and gone undetected, surfacing questions about America's COVID surveillance capabilities.

  • "We're not doing nearly enough genomic sequencing in this country still," Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at New York University and Bellevue Hospital, told the Guardian.
  • "I'm sure we have Omicron here in the U.S.; we just haven’t detected it yet," she said.

Driving the news: Despite a slow start, the U.S. is catching up when it comes to participating in global surveillance, officials at the Association of Public Health Laboratories told reporters Tuesday.

  • The U.S. is now able to sequence about 5% to 10% of tests, up from 1% about a year ago. It is able to sequence 40,000 to 80,000 tests weekly between about 70 state and local health labs, as well as CDC labs, the Associated Press reported.
  • "We're in a much, much better place than a year ago or even six or nine months ago," said Kenny Beckman of the University of Minnesota, per the AP.
  • The U.S. laboratory system can detect variants "down to 0.01% of circulating viruses so are confident it can be found," Association of Public Health Laboratories CEO Scott Becker tweeted.

But, but, but: There are concerns that the U.S. sequencing continues to be uneven by region. And about two dozen countries are still sequencing a larger proportion of positive samples than the U.S., William Moss of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the AP.

  • "I think we still have a long way to go," Moss said.

The bottom line: Surveillance can only do so much, Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine, told comedian Trevor Noah.

  • "By the time we identify a new variant, it's already gone global," Hotez said.
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