Highly mutated omicron variant likely already spreading in US – KPBS

Speaker 1: (00:00)

Health officials were already warning about a holiday uptick in COVID cases, and now comes a new variant first detected in South Africa. The Omicron variant is believed to have more mutations than previous COVID variants that could make it more contagious and possibly more resistant to vaccine immunity. But researchers say much remains to be learned about Omicron, including if it’s already circulating in the United States, president Joe Biden, address the rising alarm over Omicron in remarks. This morning,

Speaker 2: (00:33)

Variant is a cause for concern, not a cost for panic. We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.

Speaker 1: (00:51)

Joining me is Dr. Davy Smith infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego, Dr. Smith. Welcome to the program. Thank you, Maureen. Now we’ve seen a lot of variants pop up that didn’t end up posing much of a threat. Why is this one different?

Speaker 3: (01:06)

You know, there’s two big reasons why the spirit has been now listed as a bearing of concern by the who. And honestly, I’m concerned variants pop up all the time when the virus evolves and this one has evolved quite a bit. Usually it’s just one or two mutations specifically in a protein called the spike protein. That’s the one that the virus uses to get inside cells. And it’s the one that the vaccine is targeting, but this one has 30 mutations within the spike protein, which is quite a bit. And if it’s immune to human immune responses, then that could be a problem. The other thing that worries me is that it seems to have caused quite a bit of new infections where it started in Sub-Saharan Africa. And that means it’s probably more contagious than, uh, other variants that were already there. Like Delta.

Speaker 1: (01:53)

Why would more mutations make Omicron potentially more dangerous

Speaker 3: (01:57)

Viruses learning how to live inside of us? And that process of learning is evolution. So those mutations, if it’s beneficial for the virus to be able to live within a human than it keeps that mutation. And for everyone that it keeps, it means that there’s some sort of selective advantage, some sort of living advantage of the virus within us. So more of these mutations over time just means that the virus has more chances to learn about how to live within us.

Speaker 1: (02:24)

Now, researchers at UC San Diego and other labs are working to find out if the variant is in circulation here, how do you identify if a case is the result of a variant strain,

Speaker 3: (02:37)

The case that pops up positive, the SARS cov two, it goes back into the lab. We extract out the virus and we sequence the genetic material that virus looking for those mutations and we know which mutations we’re looking for. So we sequence the virus, look and see if it has those mutations. And if it does, that’s how we identify the various variants like Delta and now AMI Cron,

Speaker 1: (02:58)

A likely already in the U S yes, we can see how the variant behaved in South Africa. Did it become the dominant strain there very quickly,

Speaker 3: (03:07)

The best that we can tell it became very quickly, but predominant strain, it’s still becoming the predominant strain. There’s really good scientists in South Africa, they were doing an amazing job, sequencing the virus as quickly as possible. And as soon as they identified it, they alerted the world, which I have to say kudos to them. And now we’re doing very similar stuff in San Diego looking to see if this variant is here already.

Speaker 1: (03:29)

How does it stack up against Delta in transmissibility?

Speaker 3: (03:33)

We don’t know yet, but what we can estimate basically is that Delta was already in South Africa and now this new variant has popped up and it looks like it is replacing Delta. So what that tells us is that it’s likely more infectious or at least as infectious as Delta.

Speaker 1: (03:51)

So vaccinated people were already getting breakthrough COVID with the Delta. Variant is Omicron likely to evade vaccines, to

Speaker 3: (04:00)

There’s two big things about the evasion of the vaccine response. Yes, people who had been vaccinated could still get Delta, but they weren’t getting sick. That is super important. People should still get their vaccine. It’s the best offense we have even for Delta and even for army Cron. So please everybody get their vaccine and get their boosters. However, even though they were backs, inated some people were still able to catch the infection. And then the virus was able to grow in them for a shorter period of time. But the really good news was that the vaccine was still keeping people from getting sick. So the vaccine still worked in that. It kept people from getting sick, but people could still catch the virus.

Speaker 1: (04:40)

We know if the Omicron variant causes more severe disease,

Speaker 3: (04:45)

We don’t know. In fact, the early reports and I’m a little skeptical so that people who have Omnicom actually have less symptoms. I hope that holds out to be true, but we don’t know yet

Speaker 1: (04:55)

Countries all over the world, including the us have issued travel bans on nations, where Omicron has been identified, what can travel bans accompany?

Speaker 3: (05:05)

Honestly, I don’t think travel bands help that much. I’m pretty sure this virus is already here. And in many other places, the logic behind them is that it slows down the virus, the new variant to get where it’s going to go. And maybe that is true. The big fallout for this is that we penalize countries who did a very good job by going out, sequencing the virus, doing their surveillance and say, Hey, we have a problem. And then alerting the world. And then all of a sudden, the world says, oh, you’re a bet. Now you’re in your band. And that sends a wrong message because we want countries to come out and say, Hey, we have a problem. Come and help us

Speaker 1: (05:40)

Along those lines. You know, instead of travel ban, some researchers say we should be going all in on getting vaccine distributed all over the globe. Isn’t that the only way to stop more COVID variants?

Speaker 3: (05:51)

Yes, exactly. I, I very frustrated the reason we have this variant that pops and the next Greek letter that’s going to pop up as well is because we’ve done a horrible job at protecting the most vulnerable communities all throughout the world. We’ve been, we have this vaccine here and we need to be getting it out across the world. We were only as protected as the most vulnerable of us. And we’ve learned this in public health over and over and over. And yet we don’t seem to translate that into action. If we want to have fewer variants than we need to have as much vaccinated people all across the world.

Speaker 1: (06:27)

Uh, what does Omicron mean for our behavior over the holidays? Should people go through with their travel plans? Should they cancel them? What should they do about get togethers?

Speaker 3: (06:38)

I think common sense really needs to come into play here where people travel masks and socially distancing, things that we’ve talked about for the past 20 months still need to come into play. The big one though, is that people really do need to get vaccinated and people need to get boosters if they’re eligible to get boosters. And the other thing that I think people don’t, or should at least think about when they’re traveling, is am I going to go visit somebody who might be immunosuppressed so that if they were to get infected, they might not really do well. And the cases that we see are people who are older, they go visit their grandma or their grandpa who the young person says, oh, I’m good, I’m healthy, happy, but they might bring something into the home over the holidays that might cause grandma and grandpa, he gets sick. And that’s the part where I really worry. And people need to think about that before they make their travel plans. And if they do go visit trying to keep socially distancing masks have as many things outdoors as possible, those do help a lot.

Speaker 1: (07:31)

And in your opinion, what is the most concerning aspect of this new?

Speaker 3: (07:36)

This virus has evolved in humans who probably have some immune responses already. And that means the virus perhaps has learned how to get around vaccine responses a little bit, and may have also been able to get around some of the therapies that are currently out there, such as the monoclonal antibody therapy. So we’re going to need new drugs perhaps to treat this variant.

Speaker 1: (07:57)

I’ve been speaking with Dr. Davy Smith, infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego. Thank you very much.

Speaker 3: (08:04)

Yeah. Thank you.