Health officials are growing concerned over a new COVID-19 variant first reported in South Africa.
The variant was discovered weeks ago and has since been confirmed to have reached at least four countries.
On Friday, the World Health Organization announced it will designate the variant named Omicron as a variant of concern.
“Because this virus can spread in asymptomatic people it’s not like these people get sick right away while they are spreading it,” said Dr. Stuart Ray, who is a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Ray said the new variant is concerning because it has many mutations and could be as contagious as the Delta variant.
“It makes us worry that this new variant could have the potential to spread like delta did,” said Dr. Ray.
In response, the Biden administration imposed travel restrictions for non-U.S citizens from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday.
Canada, the European Union and the U.K also announced restrictions for travelers from South Africa.
“Travel restrictions between here and South Africa won’t make much difference unless we were able to completely shut down the movement of people before the first ones left. That’s clearly too late,” he said.
Research is now underway to learn more about the variant and its potential to be more infectious than others.
Dr. Ray says right now it’s too early to know how big of threat omicron is, but he believes the vaccines should offer good protection against it.
“We need to do our best to get people vaccinated simply because it’s the best tool we have,” he said.
He said it will be important moving forward to not take the new variant lightly.
“We really need to recognize this is a small small world that delta appeared somewhere else, and it was on our shores very quickly and it took over just about everywhere and that could happen again and it could be that omicron is the next one,” he said.