Texas medical experts, travelers react to new COVID-19 ‘variant of concern,’ Omicron

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The US will restrict travel starting Monday to South Africa and several surrounding countries. The move comes just after the World Health Organization declared a new strain of COVID-19, named Omicron, to be a “variant of concern.”

The travel restrictions will not impact US citizens with a negative COVID-19 test. In addition to South Africa, it applies to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Health experts worry this new variant, named Omicron, may be highly transmissible, more resistant to vaccines and result in an increased risk of reinfection.

“There’s no reason to panic at this point,” said Baylor College of Medicine professor Dr. Thomas Giordano.

“What is it about this variant that is so alarming to many folks?” asked KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant.

“It has a lot more mutations than previous variants,” said Giordano. “And some of those variants are in the spike protein,” which helps the virus enter cells.

Other countries, including Britain and Israel, have already implemented similar travel restrictions citing concerns about the new variant’s transmissibility. The European Union imposed a similar ban on travel. However, Belgium already announced a case of the Omicron variant in a traveler who returned from northern Africa two weeks ago.

It’s unclear how long these new measures will last heading into the busy holiday travel period.

Countries impacted by the US travel restrictions, which begin on Nov. 29

Dr. Giordano says more research needs to be done on the variant. He isn’t sure the travel restrictions will work but says he understands the need.

“Unless you completely isolate borders and shut things down in a way that very few people have the gumption to do any more,” he said, just before the ban was made public, “I don’t think travel restrictions are going to make a big impact.”

The co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, Dr. Peter Hotez, a leading expert, says we should “assume that it’s likely in the US by now.”

Still, he isn’t worried yet.

“The Delta variant is, by far, the most transmissible we’ve ever seen,” Hotez said on MSNBC Friday. “It takes a lot to outcompete Delta. So, I’m not panicked yet by any means.”

At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, travelers said they were cautious but not overly concerned.

Passengers said the new variant will not change their holiday travel plans.

“If it’s real bad and we’re concerned about it over here, than they should have stopped (flights),” said Charles Luton, before returning home to Miami, in support of the restrictions.

“Everybody’s pretty much over it,” said Austin Byrom, who is is traveling with his wife, children and mother to Disney World. “But, at the same time, it’s still there. It’s still something to be worried about.”

“I think it’s always on the back of our mind,” said Byrom’s mother, Ellie Delagarza. “But, we’re trying to be as diligent as we can [and] still have a life.”

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