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Gov. Hochul: No Known Cases Of New COVID Variant 'Omicron' In New York

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- There is growing concern over a new COVID-19 variant that could spread faster, and may put vaccines to the test.

Those fears have already led to widespread travel restrictions, CBS2's Kevin Rincon reported Friday.

The new variant called "Omicron" originated in South Africa. It has roughly 50 mutations, including 30 on the spike protein, health officials said.

"This strain has the most mutations that we've seen out of any other variant. We don't really want that to change too much where the vaccine is no longer efficacious," said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist at NYU Langone Health.

Parikh said even though it started halfway around the globe, it's very much a concern for us here at home.

"An outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere," Parikh said.


The biggest unknown is how vaccines will work against it.

"What it looks like is that it's tremendously more infectious and that it may be able to get away from some of the immunity with the vaccines, and so that certainly puts all of us on edge," Dr. David Agus said.

"Right now, you're talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue, but we don't know. Once you test it, you'll know for sure," Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN.

The uncertainty was felt on Wall Street where the Dow had its worst day in over a year, down 903 points. Travel stocks were among the biggest losers.

At Bryant Park, two investors told CBS2's Tony Aiello they are staying the course.

"Definitely in it for the long haul. The market has dropped many, many times in the past and come back up again," said Rebecca Davis of Riverdale.

"I stay steady. I keep what I have. It's cyclical and will come back," added Sal Perniola of New Providence, New Jersey.

As health experts try to find out more about this variant, it is concerning enough that travel has already been restricted from parts of southern Africa. President Joe Biden announced a ban on travel for non-citizens to the U.S. from South Africa and seven neighboring countries that takes effect on Monday.

The airport in Cape Town, South Africa was crowded with departing travelers.

"I don't know when I'm going to return. I had to leave my job behind, and getting on a plane today," one person said.

Biden said one thing we can do is be proactive.

"We don't know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern. It seems to spread rapidly," Biden said. "Every American who has not been vaccinated should be responsible and be vaccinated."

As more people travel this holiday season, they know the pandemic is still an issue.

"Ultimately, everyone's health is the number one priority here, and so whatever we have to do to make sure everyone stays healthy, we're going to do. Whatever that takes. If that means another ban, it means another ban," Newark Liberty Airport traveler Matt Rose said.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul said there are no reports of the new variant, but added the state is on high alert.

"The Department of Health's Wadsworth Center Laboratory will continue to actively monitor COVID-19 virus samples selected from throughout New York State to compare sequences and identify circulating and new variants," Hochul said in a statement Friday. "While we have not yet identified any Omicron cases, we are not surprised that new variants are emerging and may likely end up in New York. We will continue to monitor WHO actions and work with our partners at the CDC to keep a close eye on developments."

Hochul signed an executive order to help hospitals prepare for a possible spike in cases after Thanksgiving. The order allows hospitals to postpone elective surgeries, to free up capacity if needed, and also allows the state to acquire critical pandemic supplies more quickly.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor-elect Eric Adams urged city residents to get the vaccines and booster shots.

Parikh said the new variant was able to take hold in South Africa because the vaccination rate there is under 25%.

"And that's the reason why we're seeing so many mutations and variants out of these areas. So, I hope it underscores the importance of vaccines," Parikh said.

Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson said, if needed, they can develop a booster specific to this variant within a few months.

CBS2's Kevin Rincon and Tony Aiello contributed to this report. Editor's note: This story was first published Nov. 26.

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