There is a lot of things still unknown about this variant, Omicron. As scientists gather more information, the public wants to know how worried they should be.
Is the alarm around Omicron justified? What is already known and what are the key information still to look for? Are there things we can do to prepare for it?
Second, is it more virulent? Could it cause more serious illness? If so, this is obviously of great concern.
Third, is there what we call “immune escape”, which means it escapes the protection of existing vaccines? The vaccines we have are very effective against the variants already identified. It is unlikely that a new variant will make the vaccines totally ineffective, but there may be a reduction in effectiveness.
In the case of Omicron, what initially alarmed doctors and scientists in South Africa was the rapid rate of spread of this new variant. He appears to outdo Delta in speed, but it remains to be seen if he will force Delta and become dominant.
In addition, the large number of mutations in this variant – more than 50 in total – raises the question of immune evasion, both for vaccines and for treatments like monoclonal antibodies.
These are the types of information that we will need to get from further scientific studies.
CNN: What else are researchers looking for and how long will it take to find this information?
Loupe: We need to answer the three questions above. At the moment, we suspect that this new variant is more transmissible, but this needs to be confirmed. Additionally, we have no idea how severe the illness is caused by Omicron. This is something we could get more information about in the coming days by following the clinical results of the first infected individuals in southern Africa.
Studies are already underway to examine whether the antibodies produced by the vaccines will have an effect against Omicron. Dr Anthony Fauci and others estimate that these studies will take around two weeks to come back.
There are other key facts that we will discover in the days and weeks to come. Many vaccine researchers believe that those who received not only the vaccine, but also the booster, will have a very strong antibody response that could cover additional variants. We will find out if this is the case by evaluating laboratory data and through actual observations to see if those vaccinated and stimulated are less likely to be infected with Omicron. Additionally, we do not yet know to what extent recovery from pre-Covid-19 infections could protect against Omicron.
There is also the question of testing and therapy. It seems that PCR tests can easily detect Omicron. Can rapid home antigen tests also do this? A preliminary review by the Food and Drug Administration suggests they can. Will monoclonal antibodies, along with the new Covid-19 oral pills, work against Omicron? Scientists are hard at work finding answers to these questions.
CNN: If there is so much unknown about Omicron, aren’t countries overreacting by putting restrictions in place?
Loupe: I do not think so. During so much of the pandemic, we caught up, reacting to events that happened instead of proactively preparing ourselves. Maybe Omicron will turn out to be a false alarm. Maybe this variant doesn’t spread as easily, or causes serious illness, or doesn’t have an immune loophole. I hope it is, but hope is not a strategy.
From a political point of view, I think governments need to prepare for the worst-case scenario. This means alerting clinicians to the possibility of omicron so they know how to look for it, preparing hospitals for potentially increased capacity, and educating citizens on what they can do to better protect themselves. President Joe Biden, for example, urged all American adults to receive booster shots, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed their recommendation so that all people 18 and older are beefed up.
CNN: Does preparedness for the worst also include the development of new vaccines targeting Omicron?
Loupe: Moderna and Pfizer have announced that they are already studying vaccines specific to Omicron. In general, it’s a good thing to be proactive and to start this kind of research. Hopefully we will find that the vaccines we already have are sufficiently effective against Omicron, especially with the added protection of the booster dose.
CNN: What do you say to those who are losing hope, who see Omicron as a return to square one?
Loupe: We don’t do it again. Far from there. There are a lot of different things now compared to when the pandemic started. We have vaccines, tests and therapeutics. We have an infrastructure in place to accommodate this variant and future variants. Having said that, we must always remain vigilant and be ready to deploy the tools at our disposal.
CNN: A lot of people have travel plans. Should they postpone them?
Loupe: If you have international travel plans, I advise you to consider that things are very fluid at the moment. With so many countries instituting travel bans or additional restrictions, you could find yourself stuck somewhere in mandatory quarantine or without easy flights. People particularly vulnerable to serious illnesses might also wish to postpone their trips, especially with so many unknowns on Omicron.
Having said that, if you are fully immunized and boosted, and it is important for you to take the trip, you may still decide to do so. Be sure to check the guidelines for where you are visiting and your country of origin, and be prepared to change your plans depending on the dynamics of the virus and various government policies.
CNN: Are there things people can do to prepare for Omicron?
LoupeNote that the same measures that protect against other variants also protect Omicron, as it is still Covid-19, a respiratory virus. Indoor masking, physical distancing, and improved ventilation will reduce the likelihood of spread.
Federal health officials are strongly calling for booster doses. Unvaccinated people should get vaccinated as soon as possible. This includes children who are newly eligible for vaccines. Those who have been vaccinated and are at least six months away from Pfizer or Moderna or two months from Johnson & Johnson should receive their booster shots.
We have been through so much together and have made tremendous progress. We can also get through this next stage of the pandemic, including with this variant and others.