SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) — State health officials released a statement Sunday confirming that they are “closely monitoring” developments with the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 that recently surfaced and is spreading around the world.

State Public Health Officer and Director of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Dr. Tomás J. Aragón issued the below statement on the variant:

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“California is closely monitoring the new Omicron variant, which has not yet arrived in California or the U.S. Vaccines continue to be our best way through the pandemic by safely protecting us against severe illness from COVID-19 and its variants. We are doubling down on our vaccination and booster efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective, and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death.”

The release noted that California has established a public-private partnership through the California SARS-CoV-2 Whole Genome Sequencing Initiative called COVIDNet to provide the state with genomic sequencing to help understand and control the spread of COVID-19. That effort will aid in detecting the variant early in California.

The state in communication with federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to gather information and expertise to help the public, local public health departments and health care providers.

Meanwhile, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States emphasized on Sunday that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.

“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks therefore of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. … What we don’t know is whether it can compete with delta,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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While without mentioning Omicron by name, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of the threat of a fifth wave of the virus.

“We certainly have the potential to go into a fifth wave,” Fauci said on Face The Nation. “And the fifth wave, or the magnitude of any increase, if you want to call it that it will turn into a wave, will really be dependent upon what we do in the next few weeks to a couple of months. For example, we have now about 62 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated, who have not yet gotten vaccinated. Superimpose upon that, the fact that, unquestionably, the people who got vaccinated six, seven, eight, nine, 10 months ago, we’re starting to see an understandable diminution in the level of immunity. It’s called waning immunity, and it was seen more emphatically in other countries before we saw it here.”

Cases of the Omicron variant popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists cautioned that it’s not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.

The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines. But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.

Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread. Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and Australia found two.

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