Omicron variant already in U.S., Northwestern medical researcher speculates

International travel
A man wears a face covering at Heathrow Terminal 5 on November 28, 2021 in London, England. Photo credit Getty Images

(WBBM NEWSRADIO) — As the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus emerges in more countries, experts say it’s only a matter of time before it’s reported in the United States.

“It's already in America, we just haven’t caught it yet,” said Lori Post, director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Post uses surveillance systems to study COVID-19 outbreaks in 217 countries. She told WBBM Newsradio the spread of the new Omicron variant in South Africa is unprecedented.

“Since March of 2020, I had never seen an escalation like this that completely bounced off to the point I was sure there was a data error,” she said.

Last week, South Africa reported less than one COVID case per 100,000 people. In a matter of 24 hours, that number spiked to 5.4 people per day per 100,000 with an acceleration rate of 35 people.

“Meaning that the speed of the pandemic is going to accelerate and that the acceleration is going to happen within two or three days,” Post explained.

What’s more concerning is the variant emerged just as the United States reopened its borders.

“We had a 450% increase of traffic from other countries into America, so the borders were open and we were at higher risk,” Post said. “I’m sure it's here. Somebody's going to find it.”

Post said it’s too early to make assumptions about the severity of the variant and whether or not it can get around COVID vaccines.