Though the new omicron COVID-19 variant has not yet been recorded in the U.S., Chicago's top doctor said that it will likely be detected "soon."
"I have no reason to think that there are not at least a few cases over here. And I would expect us to be formally detecting it in days or weeks," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a press conference Tuesday.
The extent of the actual spread of the omicron variant around the world, however, still remains unclear as countries discover new cases each day. Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe to North America — have confirmed its presence.
Canada’s health minister says the country's first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.
Here's a map showing where the variant has been detected. (Note this map will continue to be updated as the situation develops)
The U.S. has yet to identify any cases but Fauci and other experts have warned that it could already have made it to America.
"I would not be surprised if it is. We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases that they've noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over," Fauci said.
Effective Monday, the U.S. has restricted travel from South Africa and seven neighboring countries: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
Many countries are introducing such bans, though they go against the advice of the WHO, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant is thoroughly studied.
As the new omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread worldwide, Arwady explained why the latest threat has prompted a concerned reaction from health officials over the past several days.
"[The omicron variant is] outcompeting the delta variant, outcompeting the beta variant and very quickly," she said. "So, it is probably more infectious, more contagious than delta."
Arwady noted that within just 12 days, 90% of COVID-19 cases in South Africa have been detected as the omicron variant. Whereas both the delta and beta variants took about 100 days to saturate 80-90% of the the country.
COVID vaccines should provide "some level of protection" from omicron, according to Arwady, but booster shots would add additional support.
"I don't want people to think 'oh my god, vaccines aren't working now.' That's not what we're saying here," Arwady added. "But we're saying that with this potential new variant, we could be seeing some more breakthroughs and we could be seeing some more people getting COVID again, even if, you know, even if they had COVID in the past."
More coverage of the omicron variant
The World Health Organization announced last week that omircon has been classified as a "variant of concern."
WHO Health Emergencies Programme COVID-19 Technical Lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said early evidence on omicron, known by the technical term B.1.1.529, shows that the variant has a large number of mutations, some of which have concerning characteristics.
Omicron has also shown to have an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants, indicating that people who contracted COVID and recovered could be more subject to catching it again with this variant.