A look inside the South African lab that discovered omicron variant

Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 9:32 AM EST

(CNN) - Scientists in South Africa are working to learn more about the severity of the coronavirus omicron variant and the vaccine effectiveness against it.

Medical scientist Jeanine du Plessis is bracing herself after tracking COVID-19 for several months at the Wits Vida Lab.

“It’s still too early to actually tell. I guess everyone feels a bit of hopelessness in a moment like that,” du Plessis said.

The lab is expanding so quickly they are putting samples in freezers in the hallway. Researchers are working in shifts, and as this wave develops, they will be operating 24 hours a day.

They remember how bad things could get, recalling having patients stacked in hallways in July, struggling to breathe from the impacts of the delta variant.

Now, scientists are trying to understand whether omicron is more transmissible, deadlier or whether it breaks through existing COVID-19 vaccines.

A spike in cases first happened in Pretoria with a cluster infection at a technical university, but hints of a new variant were first detected by scientists and pathologists at Lancet Laboratories.

Pathologist Allison Glass said it feels surreal to know the entire world is hanging on to a discovery at the lab.

They spotted a strange anomaly in their positive PCR tests in early November, and then it happened over and over, reminding them of tests for the alpha variant first detected more than a year ago in the United Kingdom.

“It was a bit disturbing because we were seeing something new and because it coincided with an increase in positivity rates, it made us worry that we could be dealing with a new variant,” Glass said of the anomaly cropping up again.

Lancent Laboratories urgently notified South Africa’s genomics team. Within days they publicized details of the highly mutated virus and much of the world shut off travel from the area.

Now, scientists say they are struggling to fly in critical reagent for their labwork to understand the omicron variant.

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