SAN FRANCISCO (KGO/CNN NEWSOURCE/WKRC) - The world is bracing against a new coronavirus variant that's raising alarms from scientists and health leaders.
An advisory panel for the World Health Organization Friday dubbed this new variant "omicron" and classified it as a highly transmissible "variant of concern." The agency warns omicron has shown an increased risk of infection and could be more dangerous than the delta variant. Those who have already contracted and recovered from COVID could also be more at risk to catch this variant.
Omicron was first identified in South Africa at the beginning of November. Now, cases of the variant have been confirmed around the world, including Botswana, Israel, Germany and Britain, among other countries.
Omicron has 50 mutations -- more than any other variant; compare that to delta's 19 mutations.
"Based on the numbers and the types of mutations, it looks like the worst variant that we have come across so far," Dr. Deepak Srivastava, president of the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, told KGO.
The United States has not reported any cases of omicron at this time, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says it's possibly already here.
"I would not be surprised if it is [in the U.S.]," Dr. Fauci said during an interview with NBC Saturday morning. "We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases that they've noted ... when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately is going to go, essentially, all over."
Dr. Srivastava has been leading COVID-19 research in the Bay Area. He says the omicron variant may have come from someone who might have been immunocompromised.
"The virus could divide and replicate in that person and be suppressed a bit, but not enough to prevent it from mutating," he told KGO.
Experts say more data is needed to pinpoint how transmissible omicron is and how current vaccine protection measures up. Pfizer says it can adapt its vaccine within six weeks if needed.