"We left America on November 15, and it's been amazing trip, and it's been just incredible to be here and what we've seen and what we've done has been remarkable. It was a little shocking when our final leg of the trip was Zambia, we were in Livingstone at Victoria Falls. We flew from Zambia to Johannesburg to catch our flight out, and when we landed our phones blew up with the news of (a) COVID variant and travel bans," said Lauren Kennedy Brady, who lives in Raleigh.
The omicron variant was discovered recently by researchers in South Africa, and reports of cases have now popped up in Asia, Europe, Australia, and Canada. At this point, it is not known if the variant is more transmissible, causes a more severe reaction, or if vaccines provide substantial protection against it.
"This is really different than anything we've experienced before because we know about this so much sooner than we have other variants. Is it a concern? Yes. Do we know if this is a real threat? No. We don't know that yet," said Dr. David Wohl, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC School of Medicine.
Brady, traveling with her mother, daughter, and niece, said the trip was initially scheduled for April 2020, but canceled due to the pandemic. They were planning to leave Friday, but have been unable to find a flight out of the country.
"We tried to (connect through) to Amsterdam. And then so when we tried to check in for (the) Amsterdam (flight) yesterday, they were not allowing anybody on the flight who didn't have a European passport. So that was crazy. We didn't understand what was happening, and same thing today. We've probably had about 10 bookings between Friday and today of flights that haven't worked out," said Brady.
Everybody in their group is vaccinated and has proof of a negative COVD-19 test.
"We're just trying to parcel through all the information. And the trickiest part too has been not only has it been a weekend since that has happened, but also a holiday weekend. So we haven't really been able to be in contact with anybody from the consulate or embassy," Brady said.
Beginning Monday, the US is banning travel from South Africa and seven other African countries, though the order largely impacts non-US citizens. Close relatives of citizens (spouse, parent, sibling, child) can still travel to the US once the ban goes into effect. At this time, there has been no announcement made by airlines that they plan to stop flights into affected countries. All non-US citizens must be fully vaccinated and provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days of travel, while unvaccinated citizens must provide proof of a negative test within a day of travel.
Brady said they have a planned flight to Kenya Tuesday, hoping that will allow them to fly out of the country.
"That's the most important thing, make sure it's not spreading. So I understand there's a more global and bigger picture than my little nuclear family. But I want to get home and quarantine at home," said Brady.
Her family has been in contact with Sen. Tillis's office, and is hopeful they'll have clarity on the situation soon.
Dr. Wohl doesn't believe the travel ban will have much of an impact in slowing potential spread.
"I think these bans that don't even start until tomorrow, that didn't start earlier, that don't apply to people who are U.S. citizens, as if the virus can tell what color your passport is, they're not going to be effective. So we know that this is coming. Whether or not it can compete with Delta, which is a really bad variant, which is circulating right now, we don't know. So what's going happen next - you're going to see over the next (few) weeks, there are going to be laboratory studies that indicate whether or not blood from people who've been vaccinated or had natural infection can neutralize this new variant. That's almost certainly what we're going to hear. Either it does somewhat, does a lot, or doesn't do it all. And that's going to be important information from the laboratory. We'll also get more information about what happens to people who get this, especially vaccinated people whether that be in Hong Kong, UK, Israel, South Africa, wherever this is starting to hit first and being detected. Right now it looks like not too many severe cases, but it's too early to tell," said Dr. Wohl.
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As researchers study the new variant, Dr. Wohl is urging people to not let their guard down, especially with temperatures dropping and indoor gatherings becoming more commonplace.
"Our isolation unit for people with COVID-19 everyday gets bigger and bigger and bigger. We're adding more and more rooms. So we're going to wrong way with the variant we know now. (The omicron) variant shouldn't change anything for us. In fact, it really doubles down on the things we have been doing, the things that keep us protected," said Dr. Wohl, who continued to encourage vaccinations and booster shots.
Pfizer and BioNTech released a statement, addressing their process in the event a variant emerges that renders the vaccine less effective:
Pfizer and BioNTech are remaining vigilant, and we are constantly conducting surveillance efforts focused on monitoring for emerging variants that potentially escape protection from our vaccine. As always, we will continue to follow the science as we examine the best approaches to protecting people against COVID-19. In the event that vaccine-escape variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval.