Medical experts work fast to learn more about new omicron COVID-19 variant

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Posted at 5:15 PM, Nov 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-29 17:15:39-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Just as families around the country look forward to spending the holidays together for the first time in a long time, a new variant called omicron has emerged.

Dr. Michael Teng, a USF Associate Professor of Medicine, says what makes this variant different than Delta is the surprising number of mutations it has in the spike proteins. Those proteins are what folks who have been vaccinated are immunized against. The new mutations in omicron may avoid antibody recognition.

“We’ll find out probably by the end of the week, but what it could mean is that we have a little bit more immune evasion,” said Dr. Teng.

That means our vaccines may not work as well. Dr. Teng says it would take a very unusual variant to be completely immune evasive.

Even still, Pfizer says it’s working to create vaccines specifically for omicron, which would be ready in 100 days. Moderna says it’s working on a booster, and J&J says it is evaluating its own vaccine against omicron.

“They’re really easy to change because you just change the genetic code that you put into the vaccine. You can change out the entire protein, you can put in a different protein,” said Dr. Teng. “So, it’s really flexible, very easy to adapt.”

But just because the vaccine may change slightly doesn’t mean you should hold off on getting a booster shot now.

“The reason that we’ve gotten boosters is that we see waning immunity, especially in the elderly population where their immunity wains a little quicker, it was going down to around 60% or something like that. It was a significant amount of loss,” he said.

A booster shot ramps the antibody response up to extremely high levels, according to Dr. Teng, which will help protect you against the delta variant, which is still a major problem in the U.S.

"We still have 70-80,000 cases of delta a day in the United States. We really need to worry about the thing that’s right in front of us before we worry about the thing that maybe coming,” Dr. Teng said.

Dr. Fauci believes its inevitable, but so far there have been no reported cases of omicron in the US.