Omicron has raced ahead of other variants and now accounts for 73% of new infections, more than 650,000 cases, last week, officials say.

Scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about Omicron less than a month ago.
Scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about Omicron less than a month ago. (AFP)

Omicron has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the US, accounting for 73 percent of new infections last week.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) numbers on Monday showed nearly a six-fold increase in Omicron's share of infections in only one week.

In much of the country, it's even higher.

Omicron is responsible for an estimated 90 percent or more of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest. The national rate suggests that more than 650,000 Omicron infections occurred in the US last week.

Since the end of June, the delta variant had been the main version causing US infections. As recently as the end of November, more than 99.5 percent of coronaviruses were Delta, according to the CDC data.

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Stark numbers

CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said the new numbers reflect the kind of growth seen in other countries.

"These numbers are stark, but they’re not surprising," she said.

Scientists in South Africa and Botswana first sounded the alarm about Omicron less than a month ago and on November 26 the World Health Organization designated it as a "variant of concern." The mutant has since shown up in about 90 countries.

Much about the Omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing Omicron infection but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death.

"All of us have a date with Omicron," said Dr Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. 

"If you're going to interact with society, if you're going to have any type of life, Omicron will be something you encounter, and the best way you can encounter this is to be fully vaccinated."

Adalja said he was not surprised by the CDC data showing Omicron overtaking Delta in the US, given what was seen in South Africa, the UK, and Denmark. 

He predicted the spread over the holidays, including breakthrough infections among the vaccinated and serious complications among the unvaccinated that could stress hospitals already burdened by delta.

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'Big uncertainty'

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said other countries had seen Omicron's fast growth, but the US data showed "a remarkable jump in such a short time."

Topol also said it's unclear how much milder Omicron really is compared with other variants.

"That’s the big uncertainty now," Topol said. 

"We have to count on it being a lot of hospitalisations and a lot of severe disease from Omicron."

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Source: AP