Johns Hopkins virologist: ‘Pay close attention’ to Omicron variant cases

The Omicron variant, first discovered in Africa, made waves as public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization began sounding the alarm.

After being deemed a “variant of concern,” it was detected in areas stretching from Britain to Hong Kong and triggered a change in international travel guidance for several countries, including the United States.

Dr. Andrew Pekosz is a virus expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who investigates the replication and disease potential of respiratory viruses like influenza and COVID-19.

He told WTOP that this viral mutation may be a problem for a number of reasons.

“This virus has a number of mutations which are predicted to avoid antibody binding spots and it’s the antibodies that we think protect us from infections,” Pekosz said.

Pekosz said that the new variant may be more efficient when it comes to binding to your lung cells — making it a more effective virus. However, we don’t actually know how it has been transmitting in the population.

“What we really need is a week or two to sort of see — is this really spreading at a faster rate than other variants when we look at all the cases of COVID-19 in parts of southern Africa,” he said in part.

He added that other variants that have escaped immunity haven’t been global threats. Hospitalizations related to the Delta variant in the D.C. area, for example, seemingly ebbed some months ago.

“So I think we still need to pay close attention to case numbers over the next week or so before we can really be firm about what a threat this variant is globally,” Pekosz said.

Pekosz said that the difference in impact will stem from vaccination and booster shots. In fact, he said it won’t be able to fully evade vaccines and that the need for vaccines and boosters would be “the most important thing to get across to people in the U.S. at this point in time.”

Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, Texas, told WTOP that the vaccines are developed with mutations in mind, and that the hope is that the Omicron variant is still recognizable enough to the original strain for the current vaccines to remain effective.

“We make vaccines and our response to vaccines able to recognize a virus from multiple angles, Jetelina said. “I think the real question right now is “can this vaccine and even the booster still recognize those multiple angles and how effectively can they see that?'”

She said that is one of the primary questions epidemiologists will be trying to answer in the coming weeks.

WTOP’s Mike Murillo, John Domen and Zeke Hartner contributed to this report.

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Ivy Lyons

Ivy Lyons is a digital journalist for Since 2018, they have worked on Capitol Hill, at NBC News in Washington, and with WJLA in Washington.

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