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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The World Health Organization said Monday the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 poses a “very high” global risk.

The United States has started restricting travel from South Africa where the variant was first detected.

For all the discussion around COVID-19 the World Health Organization has only designated five variants of concern since COVID-19 was first identified.

Dr. Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the UAB Division of Infectious Diseases described what is concerning researchers.

“It means that it changes the viruses ability to infect, to cause severe disease, or to avoid some of the measures that we take as a population to not be affected by it,” she said.

Marrazzo said the Omicron variant has 50 mutations, including several on the spikes of the virus which  attach to the linings of a person’s throat, nose and lungs. The concern is that could make it potentially more infectious and — better able to resist the vaccines developed so far.

The effort to figure out Omicron’s effects is underway.

“Two ways that we will know if the current vaccine protect against Omicron,” Marrazzo said. “One is studies in the laboratory where they will take antibodies that have been generated in people in response to the vaccine and literally work with the virus, the omicron variant in the lab to see if those antibodies stop the virus in its tracks. If that happens, that’s’ very, very reassuring. The next level of reassurance of course, is to see what happens in communities, if this variant spreads.”

Marrazzo said the lab reports on the variant’s response to the vaccine should be available in eight to 10 days.

The holiday season has been called, “The most wonderful time of the year,” but with COVID-19, there’s a catch.

“The timing could not be worse right,” Marrazzo said. “It’s cold in most of the United States or in much of the United States, people are returning to their communities, their families, for the vacation and the holidays, so it really is a great opportunity for the virus to take advantage of us once again, that’s exactly what happened last year.”

Marrazzo said people are bored by hearing the same message, but she said the best defense against the virus is to be vaccinated. For people planning to gather for the holidays, the more fully vaccinated people are, the safer the gathering. She said people planning on traveling for the holiday should invest in a good mask.

The Alabama Department of Public Health said Monday there have been no identified cases of the Omicron variant in the U.S.

Marrazzo said today given that the variant has been found on four continents, including as far away as Australia, it’s reasonable to assume it has also reached the United States. She said UAB’s lab is likely to be among the first in the Southeast to identify the strain – if it is in Alabama – through molecular testing.