Scientists are concerned about the number of mutations in the new Omicron variant.
The mutations might cause the variant to evade antibodies from a previous infection or a vaccine.
It's not clear yet whether existing COVID-19 vaccines will protect against the variant.
Genetic mutations in the new Omicron variant might cause it to spread quickly, even among people who are already fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the New York Times reported.
Scientists first detected the new variant in South Africa. It has since spread to several other countries, including Israel and Belgium, prompting a spate of travel restrictions across Europe, Asia, and North America, Insider's Aria Bendix reported.
It's not clear yet whether existing COVID-19 vaccines will protect against the variant. Vaccine manufacturers have already begun to consider their options in response to the rise of Omicron, which the World Health Organization has labeled a "variant of concern."
That's a distinction given to the most threatening coronavirus variants, according to the WHO. Delta, the variant that surged all throughout the summer in the US, was the last one to receive the label.
"This variant did surprise us," Dr. Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa, said at a news conference on Thursday. "But the full significance is still uncertain."
The WHO in its classification of the Omicron variant said it "has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning."
Health officials worry that the mutations might be able to circumvent antibodies that have accumulated in the body after a previous COVID-19 infection or vaccine, the Times reported.
Officials at South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement on Thursday that its experts are "working overtime" "to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be."
As scientists and vaccine manufacturers rush to learn more information about Omicron, virologists and other health officials are still urging people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus — including obtaining a booster shot.
"Please get vaccinated and boosted and mask up in public as the mutations in this virus likely result in high level escape from neutralising antibodies," Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University, said on Twitter on Wednesday.
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