COLUMBUS, Ohio (WMCH) – The latest strain of COVID-19 could have worldwide implications. The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled the omicron variant a ‘variant of concern’ and in a technical brief, it assessed its overall global risk as very high.

“I just think it’s a matter of time before this variant is discovered and identified in this country. And it’s probably here now but we haven’t done any genetic sequencing on it,” said Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, an infectious disease specialist at OhioHealth.

Scientists in South Africa discovered the omicron variant last week, linking it to a recent spike of COVID-19 cases in the country. Cases have since been identified in several European countries and in Canada. Researchers found the newest version of the virus has more than 30 mutations, which could make those who’ve already had COVID-19 susceptible to a new bout of illness.

Dr. Gastaldo said, “We do have a little bit of time before this variant is identified here, but there are still many unanswered questions we have about this variant.”

He explained it could be several weeks before it’s clear how contagious the new variant is and whether it causes more severe illness than other strains. Early reports indicate those infected by the latest variant have experienced mild symptoms.

“It doesn’t change anything currently what we are doing. It’s still all about Delta. That’s what we are seeing,” said Dr. Gastaldo, explaining more than 99% of new cases of the virus in the U.S. are infections from the delta variant.

Pharmaceutical companies are researching how effective the current COVID-19 vaccines are against the omicron variant. Doctors expect vaccinated individuals will have at least some protection against the new strain.

“If you get vaccinated, you have those long-lasting memory cells and it’s very likely those memory cells will still offer a degree of protection,” Dr. Gastaldo said.

Many health leaders are doubling down on calls for vaccinations and booster shots and Dr. Gastaldo is encouraging Central Ohioans to continue following the safety protocols to which we’ve grown accustomed.

“We still have to be cognizant of all the mitigation recommendations that we have been living with for almost two years this coming December. That’s really wearing a properly fitted mask, paying attention to the ventilation of air and sanitizing your hands on a regular basis,” he said. “Nothing really changes what we’re doing. The best defense we have for infection, whether with this variant or the Delta variant, still is to get vaccinated.”