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Emergency meeting called for contagious COVID-19 variant found in South Africa

The World Health Organization named it "omicron" as a variant of concern.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Update: A new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa is leading to a new round of travel restrictions just as many had finally begun to ease. 

The risks of the variant, called omicron, are largely unknown. But, the World Health Organization has called it a "variant of concern" and governments around the world are not waiting for scientists to better understand the variant to impose flight bans and other travel restrictions. 

RELATED: WHO eyes omicron virus variant, travel restrictions called into question

— The Associated Press

The previous story is below.

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Mutations of COVID-19 are the only thing keeping this virus alive.

The World Health Organization is keeping a close eye on a new variant out of South Africa. Virologists say it seems to be more contagious than the delta variant that caused a surge of cases across the globe.

"Why they are concerned is the 32 mutations right in the spike protein. They are really concerned that, that could evade immunity going forward," Mathematical Modeler Dr. Edwin Michael said. 

Just when it seemed we had everything under control, scientists are having to rush to learn more. Epidemiologists say the new variant has the potential to bypass the immunity created by natural infection and approved COVID-19 vaccines.

"Every single one of those things could fail to be effective if there's a huge number of mutations in spike," said Dr. Jill Roberts with USF Public Health.

While the cases haven't exploded yet, the variant has already spread to Hong Kong, leading the World Health Organization to call an emergency meeting Friday.

RELATED: New COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa raising concern

"If they are concerned, if they think that they are something we need to worry about, they're going to probably call this a variant of concern," Roberts said.

If that happens, the new variant will get another letter in the Greek alphabet. Doctors say by then, it will be on the world's radar and could take four to five months to actually get to the U.S.

"I would be very surprised if they didn't really classify it. It's a variant of interest, which is a variant that we really want to keep an eye on," USF Health's Dr. Tom Unnasch said.

While there's no need to panic in the U.S. yet, the only way to stop the virus from mutating here is to get more people vaccinated.

"We need to stop this doggone thing from buying lottery tickets. That means people have to go out and get vaccinated and they have to do what they can to reduce the spread of this virus," Unnasch said.