RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A leading expert tracking the spread of the COVID-19 variants says he expects the omicron variant will be detected in North Carolina before the end of the year, but that a lot is still unknown about the impact it will have.
“The key part is limited information,” said Dr. Dirk Dittmer, a professor of microbiology and immunology at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We do not know if the disease is more severe. We do not know if the transmissibility of the virus is more severe.”
Dittmer is one of the lead investigators for the CORVASEQ (Coronavirus Variant Sequencing) Surveillance Network. It’s a partnership between the state Dept. of Health and Human Services and the NC Policy Collaboratory, which the General Assembly established in 2016.
The team tracking the variants works with universities and health systems across North Carolina to better coordinate the task of sequencing those variants and to try to identify their presence as early as possible.
“We are now gearing up to sequence literally every positive test that goes in through the network, and I might add that’s about 68 hospitals (covering) every zip code of the state,” Dittmer said. “We’re asking them to send us everything that’s positive so we can sequence it and create a dragnet as tight as possible to catch this variant when it enters the state.”
He said the goal of the research is to answer many of the questions surrounding the omicron variant to better guide public health officials on mitigation measures, including how well the vaccines and existing treatments for COVID-19 perform against it.
“According to the WHO, the current regimen in the hospital, corticosteroids for instance, are effective. But, that’s the only one that they have information on right now,” he said. “There are a couple of treatments that are based on monoclonal antibodies you might have heard about. The speculation is they won’t be as effective because they are very much targeted to specific regions of the virus. And, this variant has mutated quite a lot. And, this why it’s called a variant of concern.”
As of Monday, 57 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to NC DHHS, a number Dittmer says needs to increase.
The emergence of the new variant comes as North Carolina has seen improvement in its COVID-19 metrics following the surge of cases this summer tied to the delta variant.
While there is no statewide mask mandate, some local communities, such as Raleigh, implemented their own mandates as cases climbed this summer. Leaders of those communities are weighing how much longer to keep the requirement in effect.
“I don’t think life as we know it should go on for another year. We have to come up with a mechanism to drop all the restrictions that are still in place,” said Dittmer.
But, he said he will continue to wear a mask and urged others to do the same.
He said, “This winter season I’m wearing a mask wherever I go.”