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Nearly a dozen COVID-19 variants detected in Tennessee so far, but not omicron

Health leaders expect the variant to arrive soon because of the contagiousness of COVID-19.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — The Tennessee Department of Health has identified ten variants of concern in the state, according to a weekly critical indicators report.

None of them are the omicron variant, but that could change quickly.

"It probably will be found relatively soon because it has been detected in North America," Dr. David Aronoff said. "[The variant] seems to be spreading through populations and displacing the Delta variant."

Dr. Aronoff is the director of the infectious disease division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

He said SARS-COV-2 is basically a circular shell that contains nucleic acid that allows the virus to replicate in our bodies. On the outside of that shell are little spikes called spike proteins.

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"Those spikes act as the Velcro that allows that virus to stick to the cells in our body and set up an infection," he said. "The omicron variant has about 30 changes or mutation to that Velcro of the virus that seem to make it stickier." 

That means it's more infectious than some of the other variants we've seen.

"The virus is likely to spread from one cell to another in our bodies more quickly, building up potentially to higher levels and making us more of a risk to people around us if we get infected," Dr. Aronoff said. "All of that to say, early indications are that the omicron variant of SARS-COV-2 is much more contagious."

Scientists are currently studying the efficacy of the current vaccines against the omicron variant of COVID-19.

"We don't know yet the extent to which the current vaccines provide protection against the omicron variant," Dr. Aronoff said. "But right now, that's really our best defense is to make sure that we have high levels of antibodies that can bind to the circulating virus in our community and thereby help protect against getting severely ill or dying from COVID-19."