The omicron variant of coronavirus is new and different, but a University of Virginia infectious disease expert is cautioning the public to not assume it’s more dangerous.
“I would say the word right now is diligence. And being cautious,” said Dr. Taison D. Bell, an assistant professor of medicine at U.Va.’s division of infectious diseases and international health, as well as the division of pulmonary/critical care medicine. Bell is also the assistant director of U.Va. Health’s medical ICU.
There’s no evidence the omicron variant is more deadly. As for whether it’s more transmissible – Bell said it might be getting detected as spreading quickly because the delta variant has already swept through South Africa — where it developed — and globally.
“Previously, [delta] caused around 100% of infections. There could be a high level of natural immunity just from delta,” he said. “And now that we have a new variant circulating, that’s basically what you’re picking up. So, it’s not that it’s more transmissible, it’s just, that’s what’s left over, and what people are getting infected with. So you have to be very careful not to make that assumption [about transmissibility].”
Bell said one reason the new variant is causing so much chatter among his colleagues is that it has more than twice the number of mutations as the delta variant on its spike protein.
Mutations mean one of three things could happen. One, nothing, because it wouldn’t impact how the virus infects people. Two, the virus could become less effective and less able to bind to human cells. And three is that it has some enhancements — which is the concern here.
“So either it binds more tightly to ourselves – it works like a locking key, so it works even better. Or it could become more deadly if you were to become infected with it,” he said. “And these mutations are in the region of the spike protein that’s relatively different than the mutations in delta. And so you can’t just look at a list of mutations and predict how the virus is going to behave. But, the fact that they’re there is something that causes concern.”
Concern, not panic
But Bell believes all the unknowns should not lead people to panic.
“Omicron represents a new day, but it’s the same sun. And the same things work as worked before — so, wearing a mask if you’re indoors limits transmission; limiting indoor gatherings, especially if they’re large indoor gatherings,” he advised.
Bell also emphasized the importance of universal vaccinations.
“There’s a question of whether omicron is going to present more of a challenge to vaccines. It’s not like a light switch that’s on or off,” he said. “It’s more likely if there is a difference that it could make vaccines less effective, meaning that you may need higher levels of antibody to fight it. And that means a booster makes good sense. And certainly if you’re not vaccinated to get vaccinated.”
Bell also stressed the importance of getting a flu shot.
“Anyone who’s worried and concerned about this needs to recognize that even before COVID there was a yearly global pandemic [influenza] that also has an effective vaccine. So make sure you get yourself protected against anything.”