With vaccines, there’s 'less reason to be freaked out' about new COVID-19 variant omicron
The World Health Organization recently categorized a new COVID-19 variant, called omicron, as avariant of concern. This classification is given either because of an increase in transmissibility, an increase in disease severity or a decrease in vaccine or treatment effectiveness.
The first U.S. case of the COVID-19 omicron variant was identified on Wednesday in a person who traveled from South Africa.
Pathologists across the country, including UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, are monitoring the new variant’s trajectory closely.
What’s significant about the new COVID-19 variant omicron
Jeffrey SoRelle, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at the medical center, has tested for and tracked the virus in North Texas since the beginning of the pandemic. He said the most significant thing about omicron is the number of mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that’s targeted by vaccines and people’s immune responses.
“The previous variants had around six to eight mutations in the spike protein, and that was considered to be higher than normal,” SoRelle said. “This one has over 30.”
He said it’s notable because the amount of mutations jumped to a much higher number. This also could mean omicron COVID-19 is more transmissible than other variants, but SoRelle said there’s not a lot of data on other factors such as illness severity or hospitalization.
“There’s some aspects of the characteristics of the virus that are concerning, but as the virus adapts, so does our immune system,” he said. “It's also very good at adapting and recognizing multiple things that look similar and protecting us.”
He said with wider access to COVID-19 vaccines for kids and adults, along with booster shots approved for the general population, there’s “less reason to be freaked out” by a new variant.
“I think it’s good to keep some perspective,” SoRelle said. The last two surges caused by the delta variant were bad, but “the worst was in January, after the holidays when we didn’t have vaccines.”
Even with previous immune resistant strains, like beta, SoRelle said vaccines were still effective.
“What’s hard for people is the unknown.”
SoRelle said it’s going to take time to collect data on how omicron might affect people. Scientists from South Africa first reported omicron to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24, and cases of the variant arebeing identified in multiple provinces around the country.
Just because it might spread more quickly, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more severe, cautioned SoRelle. It took a few months to determine how the delta variant might affect people when it started appearing in the United States earlier this year.
“That's what's hard for people—the unknown,” he said. “And waiting to find that information out.”
While there are no reported cases of omicron in Texas yet, SoRelle said it’s a matter of time.
“We've seen every variant of concern that's come up here in Dallas, Texas, just at UT Southwestern, and we're only sampling our patients at our hospital,” he said. “I would say we're likely to see it before Christmas time.”
In the meantime, he and other medical officials at UT Southwestern will use virus sequencing techniques and rapid PCR tests to identify omicron and any other variants.
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