This Is How Quickly the New Variant Will Take Over, Virus Expert Warns

One expert predicts when Omicron will be the dominant COVID variant across the globe.

Over the last two years, we've seen several iterations of the coronavirus, like Alpha and the now-dominant Delta variant. There have also been less talked about variants, like Iota, Kappa, and Mu. But it took the World Health Organization (WHO) just a few days after the Omicron variant was first reported to label it a "variant of concern," which is a troubling designation. This categorization means that the latest variant of the virus could spread more easily than those before it and also bypass the effectiveness of vaccines. Virus experts have said they will need weeks to determine what course Omicron is going to take, but some are already predicting that it will outcompete the Delta variant and take over as the dominant form of COVID.

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The Omicron variant has already been reported in at least 24 countries including the U.S., according to the WHO. During a Dec. 2 interview on CNBC's Street Signs Asia, Leong Hoe Nam, MRCP, an infectious disease specialist working at the Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital in Singapore, said that it would likely only take the new variant a few months to take over, much like Delta did earlier this year.

"Frankly, Omicron will dominate and overwhelm the whole world in three to six months," Nam said.

Vaccine manufacturers are already rushing to create variant-specific vaccines in case the Omicron variant ends up evading the protection offered by the existing shots. Both Pfizer and Moderna have said they will need at least three months to develop a vaccine that is targeted at this new variant. According to Nam, that will be too late.

"Nice idea, but honestly, it is not practical," Nam said. "We won't be able to rush out the vaccines in time and by the time the vaccines come, practically everyone will be infected [by] Omicron given this high [infectiousness] and transmissibility."

That may be Nam's worst-case scenario prediction, but the reality is that experts don't know exactly how transmissible this new variant is going to be. Some have suggested that the high number of spike protein mutations in Omicron mean it may spread more easily than any previous variant of the virus.

"This [variant's] mutational profile is very different from other variants of interest and concern. And although some mutations are also found in Delta, this is not Delta; it's something different," White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, said during a Nov. 30 press briefing. "These mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion."

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But other experts have said that they don't believe Omicron is going to surpass Delta. The Delta variant still accounts for 99 percent of all COVID infections around the world, according to the WHO. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that this version of COVID is more than two times as contagious as the variants that came before it.

A Sept. 13 study from researchers at the Broad Institute found that there were at least three mutations on the Delta variant that likely made it this transmissible. Robert Garry, PhD, a virologist at Tulane University who has done a head-to-head comparison of the mutations seen in Delta and Omicron, told CNN that he has not seen many important mutations that might make the Omicron variant more contagious than Delta.

"The ones that might affect transmissibility, I mean, I'm just not seeing a whole lot that would give it a real strong advantage over Delta," Garry said.

On the whole, virus experts have said that it is likely just too soon to tell whether Omicron or Delta will be the dominant variant in the next few months. "Everyone is afraid that Omicron will be significantly more transmissible than Delta. Upon first impression, it looks like it could be," Jeremy Luban, MD, a virologist at the the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told NPR. "But that could be totally wrong. Right now, nobody knows. The problem is that our data is very limited."

RELATED: Dr. Fauci Just Gave This Urgent Warning to Vaccinated People Amid New Variant.

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