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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.

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron — WHO recommends 2 new treatments — What "mild" really means when it comes to Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas— Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements— Supreme Court blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers.
  3. Politics: Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health" — Focus group says Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy.
  4. Economy: America's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic— — CDC COVID guidance for cruise ships to be optional starting Saturday — The cost of testing.
  5. States: America struggles to keep schools open — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers.
  6. World: Beijing reports first local Omicron case weeks before Winter Olympics — Teachers in France stage mass walkout over COVID protocols.
  7. Variant tracker

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 1 hour ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.