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(WGHP) — Dr. Dirk Dittmer believes the omicron variant of COVID-19 could be in North Carolina before the end of 2021. 

“Variant of concern, which is what omicron is, means there have been a cluster of cases. And it’s so different from the currently dominant delta variant, that there’s a concern it would react differently to drugs, vaccines, and that it spreads much more quickly than the variants before,” he explained Monday. 

Dittmer runs the Dittmer lab at UNC-Chapel Hill, identifying variants using samples from 68 hospitals across the state. 

He said for the past three to four months, every sample has been the delta variant of the virus or a substrain. 

“This one is very different, and it’s likely to be the next big wave,” Dittmer said. 

The biggest difference in omicron is the outer shell, according to the researcher. 

“That’s what our antibodies recognize. That’s what the vaccine recognizes. And that shell has changed. The concern is that the vaccine will not be as effective, so we don’t have the numbers yet. The concern is that one of the treatments we have, which are monoclonal antibodies that are infused, may no longer work. That’s very likely in my opinion,” he said. 

Infectious disease expert Dr. Christopher Ohl, of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, said it’s unlikely the variant could evade parts of our immune response completely. 

“It does seem to be a bit more contagious. How much more contagious than delta we have to sort that out…the increase in cases in certain provinces in South Africa, including breakthrough infections in some vaccinated people, is concerning,” Ohl said. 

He believes the symptoms of the strain would be similar to those of the delta variant. 

“It’ll still be fever, body aches, headaches, cough. And in more severe cases, pneumonia and possibly spread of the infection to the organ systems. But I think that’s mostly going to be a concern in unvaccinated people,” Ohl said. “It’s going to be kind of a superhero war or a supervillain war between omicron and delta to see who wins out for transmission capability. And whichever virus wins that war is the one we’re going to have to deal with in the long run.”