Tests can still accurately identify most cases of Omicron variant of COVID-19, but the strain is more transmissible than earlier forms of the virus, experts say. File photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 7 (UPI) -- The Omicron variant of COVID-19 can be detected by most currently available diagnostic tests, which is significant given the increased transmissibility of the strain, experts said Tuesday.
While the genetic mutations seen with the new variant will not affect testing now, future changes as the virus continues to evolve, however, could make testing more difficult, they said.
"We may have dodged a bullet with this constellation of mutations," infectious disease specialist Dr. Jacob Lemieux said during a call with reporters on Tuesday.
"We still don't know how the mutations in Omicron affect each of the assays being used to test for the virus, but we do know that the major assays for PCR-based diagnosis continue to work," said Lemieux, a staff physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Still, the variant could be undetectable on some tests for the virus, particularly some take-home or self-administered tests, he said.
Earlier Tuesday, media reports described Omicron as a "stealth" variant, because in some cases it lacked a certain genetic sequence that PCR tests use to detect the virus.
The "stealth" form of Omicron, dubbed BA.2, has reportedly already been identified in South Africa, Australia, and Canada.
South Africa was the first country to report cases of the Omicron variant, on Nov. 25.
Should the new variant -- or any future ones -- be able to evade current testing platforms it could fuel a potentially serious outbreak, Lemieux said during the call, which was hosted by the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness.
That is because evidence exists that the strain is far more transmissible than earlier forms of COVID-19.
In South Africa, where it originated, for example, virus cases have increased by 400% in just the past week alone, according to government officials there.
Similarly, in Britain, which has been among world leaders in genetic testing to spot new variants, cases involving the Omicron variant are "increasing at unprecedented rate, more than the Alpha" variant, said Lemieux's colleague Dr. Jeremy Luban, who was also on the call.
The Alpha variant, also called the "U.K." variant, was first discovered in England in September 2020, said Luban, a professor of molecular medicine, biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
On Tuesday, Britain's National Health Service reported 101 new cases of the Omicron variant, bringing the country's total to 437.
Because of this rapid spread, "we need to be prepared for Omicron causing severe outbreaks in the United States over the next one to two months," Lemieux said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested Tuesday during a White House briefing that the variant causes less severe illness, based on preliminary evidence.
But Dr. Karen Jacobson, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Boston University School of Medicine, said during the consortium's call that it is likely too early to know that for sure.
To date, in outbreaks in Denmark, Norway, and Australia, there have been fewer hospitalizations among confirmed cases, compared with earlier variants, including among children, she said.
Most of these outbreaks have occurred in places where large numbers of people are gathering, unmasked, according to Jacobson.
"It's early but reports so far are overwhelmingly mild cases," said Jacobson.
However, "we might need another week or so" to confirm that, she said.