Vaccines 'still the backbone of everything we do' amid any variants, doctor explains

ICU physician Dr. Lakshman Swamy, from Cambridge Health Alliance and Boston Medical Center, speaks on Yahoo Finance Live about the new reports of a surge in cases involving COVID-19. and importance of vaccines.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's turn our attention now to this new variant that has really spooked the markets today. It was first identified in Botswana this month. It's reportedly behind a surge in cases that we have seen in Southern Africa.

There's a number of reasons why it's concerning doctors. Number one, the ability to evade vaccines. Also, the potential transmissibility of it all. We did hear from Dr. Fauci this morning calling for some caution, saying it's too soon to move on new restrictions until there is a more clear grasp on the threat this new COVID variant poses.

Let's bring in Dr. Lakshman Swamy. He's ICU physician at Cambridge Health Alliance and instructor at Harvard Medical School. Doctor, it's good to talk to you today. Give me your assessment of what we know so far.

LAKSHMAN SWAMY: So thanks for having me. I'll tell you that there's not that much that we know, but there's enough reason, I would say, to be concerned, but not panicking. Here's what I'm thinking of. There's three kind of dimensions to this. The first is, is this variant going to spread more quickly, more like wildfire than delta? Is it going to overtake delta? For that part, I think what we're seeing in South Africa is concerning. Again, not panic. But it's going in the direction that I-- there's a reason we're all talking about it.

Now, for the other two parts, will it hurt and kill a lot of people and will our vaccines work against it. I would say on those two, there is so little that we know. Will it hurt or kill more people? I think we have nowhere near the numbers to know that right now. And the last point of will our vaccines work against it, reason-- there is reason to worry because of the mutations in the spike protein. There's reason to worry. But there's no reason to assume that our vaccines won't offer significant protection here. So I think that all that said together is concern, but definitely not panic.

- The UK, sir, was quick to impose travel restrictions. There are cases, obviously, in South Africa, and there's one in Hong Kong, there's one in Belgium. You know, it's not a short flight to get from South Africa to Hong Kong. So do you think that this is more prevalent, and we just haven't seen instances show up yet? And do you think the US should consider these travel restrictions, as well? How helpful are they?

LAKSHMAN SWAMY: When I hear about these travel restrictions, I have to say, it feels like we're using like a white picket fence to keep out mosquitoes. It doesn't make that much sense to me. I think we've seen over the past year and a half, two years that it really hasn't made that much of a difference. That's maybe-- I mean, I would love to see data that says that to the contrary, but in my opinion, I don't think these travel restrictions and travel bans really have that much of an impact on it.

Like you said, we've already seen it spreading. There's probably a lot more of it that has spread than we know about. So how do we counter that? We counter that the same way we've been countering it all along. We get more people vaccinated and we stick to the same basic precautions. We don't have to go to the extreme of quarantining and lockdown everything if we can take, you know, precautions that are a little bit less than that earlier on.

AKIKO FUJITA: Doctor, you said there's no reason right now, just given the science that's available, to say that the current vaccines combined with the booster shots won't necessarily offer the protection needed against this new strain. What about some of these antiviral medications? I mean, how big of a lift is that likely to provide if, in fact, you know, this is as transmissible as some are suspecting?

LAKSHMAN SWAMY: It's a great point. I think that I have a lot of hope for these antivirals. A lot of hope. And in the case that-- you know, I think they work well together, right? I think vaccines still have to be the backbone of everything we do here, but these antivirals can offer a lot.

Now, I have to say, as a doctor, I haven't gotten to use this yet, right? So there's a lot of hope and optimism on my part with these, but I am-- you know, I want to wait to actually have it in my hand and be able to treat people with it.

- And so your suggestion to people who, let's say, have been immunized, have their two shots, and now are getting ready for a booster, like myself. I have an appointment on Monday. So I go ahead and get that? I do not wait because there may be some sort of ancillary sort of vaccination or booster that comes out that addresses this particular strain if the need arises?

LAKSHMAN SWAMY: If I hadn't already had my booster, I'd be getting it on Monday, too. I think that's exactly the right thing to do. There's no reason to kind of deviate from that right now. We should-- you know, I think the boosters are really helpful. I think the data is better now for them. Previously, I would have said I'm not so sure it's so helpful. Now, I think we've changed our stance. We say, no, I think it really makes a big difference.

So I think the boosters are important, that we should go ahead with those same precautions. And we should just be aware that this is the sign that this pandemic is not over. If this isn't the variant that's going to burst out and overtake delta and cause worse problems, there will be another one in the future if we don't get global control of the pandemic with widespread vaccination.

AKIKO FUJITA: And Doctor, we're getting this news at a time when there were already some jitters about a potential fifth COVID wave here in the US, especially given the case counts that have ticked up over in Europe. Give me a sense of what you're seeing in your hospitals. Are you seeing more patients coming through the door? And are they still largely those who are not vaccinated?

LAKSHMAN SWAMY: So, you know, this is constantly evolving. And here's what I'll say, is that right now, we are seeing more people coming into the hospital. And by no means are we kind of overwhelmed or anything, but I think at the same time, we've learned, and we're able to scale some things back a little bit earlier without having to wait to go into a full surge. So I think we're adapting.

And we're seeing more cases come in. I think we're worried. In Massachusetts, I would say we're all a little bit anxious about what's going to happen after the holidays, are we going to be overwhelmed in the hospitals again. We're not quite there yet. I hope we don't get there. So I think that's the bottom line, is that things are looking worse than they're looking good, but it's hopefully just a blip.

- And Dr. Swamy, I want to ask you, along with vaccinations and boosters, how important is it still to sort of wear masks? Because there are sort of differing opinions there. A lot of people are getting weary, as well. Is this the time to sort of reinforce that we need to take every single precaution that we can?

LAKSHMAN SWAMY: So I think it's true that we should take every single precaution. It's also true that we don't need to overdo it, right? You're having a small family gathering, you're having a small gathering of friends, small groups in your home, hopefully, you have some kind of way to increase the ventilation a little bit, maybe an air purifier. Maybe not, maybe you crack the windows open.

I don't think you need to wear masks in these situations. I think that this is something we've learned over the course of the past year, is if everyone is vaccinated and you're having a small gathering indoors, you should be able to do that and relax. I wouldn't worry about it. now that's very different than going to a grocery store. I would wear my mask. Going to any kind of indoor public place, larger groups of people, I would have my mask on.

- And Doctor, final question for you is how concerned should parents be, because their kids are just perhaps getting the first vaccine, younger ones. You know, the second one not yet here, and then now this new strain may be an issue, as well.

LAKSHMAN SWAMY: I am-- you know, I'm really hopeful. I have young kids. They've gotten their first shot. My youngest child is not yet eligible for it. You know, but I'm really hopeful that, you know, they should be able to get vaccinated, complete the series before Christmas. And I think that that's still within the realm of possibility for many people, before the end of the year. I think that time frame works.

I'm not too worried. I think it's important for parents to know that the vaccines are safe for their kids. If you're five and up, you should get your kids scheduled. You should get your kids the first shot and get them on that track. I mean, we don't know what will happen in the future, but I'm not panicking about the timeline there. I think we have a window. Let's get the kids vaccinated. We can do it.

- Thank you for that reassurance. Dr. Lakshman Swamy, ICU physician at Cambridge Health Alliance and instructor at Harvard Medical School, thank you for your time this Black Friday.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting