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COVID: Expert Says New Omicron Coronavirus Variant Likely Already in U.S.

SAN JOSE (KPIX) -- President Biden joined other countries in restricting travel from the South Africa region where a new "concerning" coronavirus variant has been detected. The new restrictions take effect on Monday.

The World Health Organization says the "omicron" variant, which has been spreading in South Africa, is "a highly transmissible variant of concern."

While no cases have been discovered in the United States, University of California San Francisco professor of medicine Dr. Peter Chin-Hong believes the variant is already here.

"Yes, the variant is probably already here in the U.S., there's lots of travel between South Africa and the U.S.," Dr. Chin-Hong said.

Health experts say it's still too early to tell whether the omicron variant can cause severe illness or if the vaccines work against it.

Dr. Chin-Hong said the variant's concerning features are found on its spike proteins.

"There are about 30 mutations in the spike protein and about ten mutations on the end of the spike protein, which allows the virus to attach to the body and that might make it stickier and might make it look different enough so that antibodies from the vaccine or from natural immunity don't recognize it," said Dr. Chin-Hong.

Moderna and Pfizer believe they can adjust their vaccines as needed and Johnson & Johnson is already testing its vaccine effectiveness against the omicron variant.

Marc Samson, who was flying out of San Jose the day the president made the announcement on travel restrictions from South Africa, said he agrees with the decision.

"You got to nip it in the bud," Samson said.

The restrictions impact South Africa and seven other countries in the region.

Samson and other travelers didn't seem too rattled about the new variant. After nearly a half a year of dealing with the highly transmissible delta variant, they said nothing is surprising about COVID any longer.

"I like to travel so I'd just have to see," said Tony Deutsch who was traveling out of Mineta San Jose International Airport.

"So used to it now, you know, it just seems normal now as they say," Samson said.

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