NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — As more countries report cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, scientists in the U.S. are analyzing tens of thousands of virus samples, looking for the new strain.

It is a complicated laboratory process that CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reports is key is to understand how contagious and how serious a disease the strain can cause.

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Health officials around the world are concerned about the new variant because it has a never-before-seen number of mutations in the genes that code for the spike proteins which the virus uses to enter human cells.

COVID VACCINE

Labs around the U.S., like the Pandemic Response Lab just outside New York City, are testing to see where else Omicron will pop up, now that the Centers for Disease Control has confirmed a case in California.

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Of the hundreds of thousands of positive PCR COVID tests weekly, the U.S. sequences the genetic code of about 80,000 of them, looking for the mutations that make it an Omicron or other variant. That helps determine how fast the variant virus is spreading and how infectious it is.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Right now, the Delta variant makes up more than 99% of tested cases worldwide, and Delta took over very fast.

“Thinking back on that, I think it was probably six-to-eight weeks from the time we first sort of saw it and then really saw it take off, and it took off very quickly,” the Pandemic Response Lab’s Jon Laurent said.

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The possibility is that Omicron, with its many mutations, could quickly out-compete the Delta variant and become the dominant COVID-causing virus. The fear is that if Omicron also causes more severe disease, or can evade present vaccines, we could be in for a very unpleasant winter. We’ll know more about how this new variant will impact the pandemic in the next couple of weeks.

Dr. Max Gomez