UC Davis Health System

12/03/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 12/03/2021 16:52

The COVID-19 Omicron variant: an infectious disease expert explains what we know so far


Since the COVID-19 Omicron variant was discovered last week, there have been more questions than answers about its transmissibility, severity and the efficacy of vaccines against it.

Stuart Cohen, chief of infectious diseases at UC Davis Health, shares what scientists and physicians know so far and what the variant could mean for the future trajectory of COVID-19.

How is Omicron different?

This has more mutations than any other variant that's been seen and a number of the mutations are in the spike protein, so that's what really is raising people's anxiety level. Whether it's the mRNA vaccines or the J&J vaccines or some of the protein vaccines that may come down later, they're all focused on targeting and developing an immune response to the spike protein and spike is what attaches to the cells, too, so definitely relates to transmissibility, so mutations in the spike can increase transmissibility and also potentially increase the ability for the virus to avoid antibodies made by the vaccine.

How might the vaccines work against Omicron?

We have no clear idea whether the vaccines will be equally effective or not, but I think the argument would be that we know that there's a potential that it might not be and that the higher your antibody concentrations are the more likely it I to be able to work, and so if you haven't gotten a booster you need to get boosted."

Does the Omicron variant cause more severe illness?

The clinical presentation is going to be the same. COVID-19 is COVID-19, so it's going to present identically.

Should the public do anything differently?

I don't think you're going to feel much different. We still have a significant amount of transmission that's occurring in Sacramento due to the Delta variant so I'm not necessarily expecting things to change significantly. We'll just have to see. I think people should be thoughtful but not necessarily concerned. I think that people should be watchful about what's happening. I think you're still looking at making sure that you've got a booster dose of vaccine, or if you haven't been vaccinated, get vaccinated, and then consider minimizing exposure to big large groups unless it's outdoors.

What does the Omicron variant tell us about possible future variants?

So, the most important thing about Omicron is that it continues to be the evolution of COVID-19. The more people that get infected, the more likely we are to see more variants come back behind us and so, again, this is a message to get people vaccinated. Right now, the unvaccinated population is really keeping the whole pandemic moving along. You're not going to see the number of breakthrough cases if people are all vaccinated, because that's the way you finally crush this and we're just not at a level within our population. We're pretty good here at UC Davis, but within the population at large, we're not at a level where we can really stop spread, and very time the virus infects somebody else, there's a chance for more mutations and if those mutations are beneficial to the virus, they're going to keep taking off, so he more people infected, the more likely we're going to have to learn the whole darn Greek alphabet. The public should know that staying vigilant is a good thing and getting vaccinated if you're not is a good thing. That's ultimately the way out of this thing.

Learn how to schedule your vaccine at UC Davis Health.