Omicron: Doctor details key questions about new COVID-19 variant

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has now been reported in at least 19 countries around the world, including the 77 cases found in South Africa and 19 cases in Botswana. 

Scientists and other health officials are now in the process of finding out what this means for the global population.

“With Omicron, the big concern really comes down to: Is it more contagious? And does it cause worse disease?” Dr. Jeremy Faust, emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “And for those of us who are vaccinated, do our vaccines hold up? Right now, we know none of that. The number of mutations can sound very scary, but that is laboratory information.”

Top U.S. infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Biden deliver an update on the Omicron variant at the White House, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Top U.S. infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Biden deliver an update on the Omicron variant at the White House, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Initial reports have indicated that those who have tested positive for the specific Omicron strain are only experiencing minor symptoms like fatigue and loss of smell or taste, while others have been asymptomatic. But there is still a significant number of “unknowns” about the mutant strain, leaving health officials at least slightly concerned.

“We are light years away from having the technology to say, based on a mutation sequence, that we know what that means in terms of a clinical response,” Faust said. “We just do not have that technological know-how yet, but we do have a lot of other technological know-how that’s going to help us in this moment, regardless of what happens. That includes understanding quickly if our vaccines are going to hold up and also making quick changes to the vaccine if necessary.”

The vaccine question

Whether or not the currently available COVID-19 vaccines will offer enough against the Omicron variant remains to be seen.

“We can hope for it to be milder,” Dr. Howard Forman, a Yale University radiology and public health professor, said on Yahoo Finance Live. “We’re going to start to learn about whether current vaccines or prior infection can convey immunity to individuals such that they may have less severe disease. That would be really important information to find out. And we’ll start to get information both from our modeling community, as well as from on the ground data points, that tell us if this is, in fact, more transmissible or somehow evading prior infection, but either way to figure out whether this is going to spread rapidly over time.”

According to the New York Times, all three vaccine manufacturers in the U.S. — Moderna (MRNA), Pfizer (PFE), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) — are already conducting research to see how their vaccines fare against “an artificial version of Omicron.”

Additionally, Pfizer’s scientists “can adapt the current vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant” that eludes the immune system, a Pfizer spokesperson told the New York Times.

“If this were a variant that had a characteristic, such as it was actually faster to cause very deadly disease, I think we’d start to know that right away,” Faust said. “So I expect to keep on hearing anecdotal reports, but we won’t have really great data for a couple of weeks on the aspect of: Is it causing worse disease and breakthrough?”

Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, is already predicting that the current vaccines will be significantly less effective against Omicron compared to previous variants.

“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level … we had with Delta,” he told The Financial Times.

Aug 13, 2021; Anaheim, California; An OC Health Care Agency Pifizer and Moderna coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine shot sign at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 13, 2021; Anaheim, California; An OC Health Care Agency Pifizer and Moderna coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine shot sign at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

'The travel ban makes no sense at all'

Vaccine equity also plays a significant role in this new variant's discovery.

“The way that mutations arise is through infections,” Faust said. “And we know that the vaccines temporarily seem to stop infections, at least for several months. We see that efficacy is fantastic. And then even once you have the settled-in period, you do still have protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death months and, who knows, years out.”

Consequently, in places with lower vaccination rates and less overall access to vaccines, it’s not a surprise to see the emergence of a new variant.

“In terms of getting our eye off the prize, in terms of boosting the young and healthy rather than trying to really focus on vaccinating people all over the world and even in this country who haven’t received a single dose yet — those are the priorities in terms of stopping the morbidity, the severity of the disease, and it also does decrease future moments like this,” Faust said.

Botswana and South Africa have fully vaccinated rates of 19.6% and 24.3%, respectively. In comparison, 59.3% of the total eligible population in the U.S. is fully vaccinated. 

The U.S. has also begun distributing booster shots, prompting criticism from several public health experts who have highlighted that the country is punishing African countries by implementing travel bans. (According to Our World in Data, just 14% of 1.7 billion promised doses of vaccines have been delivered to lower-income countries.)

Faust criticized these travel bans, despite Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, advocating for them on a temporary basis.

“I think the travel ban makes no sense at all,” Faust said. “I have to say, I disagree with what Dr. Fauci said on the Sunday morning shows. This is a very porous travel ban. I’m sorry — if Omicron is a problem, having a ban that goes into effect three days after you announce it, that doesn’t apply to U.S. passport holders, doesn’t apply to permanent lawful U.S. residents, as if we couldn’t carry it home with us, that doesn’t make any sense. Travel bans slow things down if they actually work.”

Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Currently, the U.S. has restricted travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. 

“We also need to realize that blaming the country that first reported it is a very, very bad idea because the thing that you could do to stop these things is to know about them very early and act upon them,” Faust said. “If you’re South Africa, the lesson you might take is, ‘Wait a second, why would I want to announce this when I could just wait a week and maybe Belgium will be blamed?’”

“We need, as a community, to not punish transparency,” he added. “We need to increase our sequencing ability. But I think the moment is showing us all that we're so uncertain. Sequencing is not everything. So we need to get those sequences, and then the work of studying the clinical impact can begin. Getting a headstart is important, but that doesn’t mean you know everything about what those mutations really imply.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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