Researchers identified mutated spike proteins in Omicron variant of COVID-19. Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 | Dr. Chinmaya Mahapatra

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Another day, another concerning COVID-19 variant threatening to prolong the global pandemic. 

Last week, news headlines blared with the discovery by South African researchers of another COVID variant, now called Omicron. This event led to an initial wave of panic and a tumbling stock market. But just how serious is the new variant? 

As of this writing, health officials have detected cases of the new Omicron variant in 15 different countries, but not yet in the United States (or Minnesota). The media messaging so far seems both scary and confusing: U.S. officials say it’s only a matter of time before Omicron arrives at our doorstep, but they also caution against panicking. 

In fact, when we called local health experts at the Mayo Clinic, they urged Minnesotans to remember that the state remains in the thick of a dangerous Delta wave. 

Mayo offered the same recommendations we’ve heard before: Get vaccinated against COVID-19 and boosted if you’re eligible. Wear a mask and distance in indoor public settings. Avoid crowded indoor areas when you can. 

Will these practices still work with Omicron? Will Omicron cause a new wave of cases, similar to Delta? Can people still travel internationally in a responsible manner?

Dr. Tim Schacker, vice dean for research at the University of Minnesota Medical School, answered these questions and more in a recent conversation with Sahan Journal. His major takeaway? Yes, Omicron looks concerning and the initial data don’t look good. But health experts don’t yet know whether Omicron is more contagious or more deadly than previous variants. 

And we will know soon. Schacker emphasized that the global health system is better prepared for this development that we were at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic–-or during the emergence of the Delta variant earlier this year.

“The science is working, the systems that we’ve got in place for surveillance are working. We will soon have answers about what kind of vaccination we’re going to need for Omicron.”

“The science is working, the systems we’ve got in place for surveillance are working,” Schacker said on Monday afternoon. “We will have answers soon about what kind of vaccination we’re going to need for Omicron, and it’s likely that we’re not going to need anything more than what we’ve already got. At least, that’s a possibility.” 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What are the major things we know about the new Omicron variant, and what are the major things we don’t know? 

It’s very early. We know there has been a major evolutionary change in some really strategic parts of the virus. A number of mutations have occurred, and we know where those mutations are. And they’re in spots that are not good, that potentially make it more transmissible, and make it more virulent. This is all potentially. The second thing we know is that this thing is spreading rapidly. It’s been found in Australia, Israel, several countries in Europe, and in Canada. 

The important thing that we don’t know is how virulent this is. Is it more virulent than Delta? Does it make you sicker? Is it only in people who have preexisting conditions like obesity or diabetes? All of that we don’t know. It’s still too early. 

The second major thing that we don’t know is, Will the current vaccines protect us from significant illness with Omicron? The reason we don’t know that is it takes a while to do those studies. We’ve got to grow the virus in the laboratory, we’ve got to challenge the virus with serum from people who’ve been vaccinated.  

All of this stuff is happening at lightspeed, and it’s happening literally all over the world. But it’s still going to take a few weeks to accumulate enough data to be able to say, “Yes, if you receive three doses of an RNA vaccine, you’re protected from significant illness or hospitalization or death,” or, “No, you’re not.” 

If I had to guess or speculate, I would say that we certainly have some degree of protection from vaccination, especially if you got the mRNA vaccine. But that’s speculation. And we’ll know more soon.

You said we’re seeing a major evolutionary change in the strategic parts of the virus. Can you explain that more? 

The spike protein is the part of the virus that attaches to cells in your lungs. The mutations in the genes that make the spike protein are in the perfect spot to make it likely that the virus can attach to the cells more efficiently. That’s the part that’s got everybody worried. There were three or four mutations in the spike in Delta that caused it to be more easily transmitted, and this is a jump in that same region.

But we just don’t know yet about transmissibility and virility. There is a report from a single doctor in South Africa. She says she was the one who alerted authorities that there was something new going on. Her patients with Omicron had mild symptoms. That’s the only report out there about the symptoms that you get from Omicron. 

The part of it that is misleading, though, is that it’s one doctor with a particular patient population that tends to be younger, healthier people. Healthier people tend to do better with COVID infections than older people who have health problems. While it may be for the people she saw, it does not apply to the general population because we just don’t have that information yet.

In the preliminary data that we have now, do we know whether people infected with Omicron have been previously infected with COVID-19, or whether they’ve been vaccinated?

We don’t know that yet. What do we know? We know that 600 people on airplanes coming out of Johannesburg and Cape Town landed at the airport in the Netherlands. They tested everyone and 60 people tested positive. Of those, a handful had Omicron. I can’t tell you whether the people who had Omicron were vaccinated, or if they were just in that window period where they were infected but their required test before the flight wasn’t positive. It’s just so hard to know at this point. 

Are we in a period of fear and uncertainty, not knowing exactly how threatening this new variant is?

I actually wouldn’t say fear and uncertainty. The science infrastructure in South Africa is such that they identified this and they alerted the World Health Organization, and that’s remarkable. That they have the surveillance systems out there, they’re alert, and that they’re giving information where it needs to be given. The response has been rapid. We will have information soon.

Sure, there’s some uncertainty. But the other thing that we know is that if you mask indoors, if you get vaccinated, if you stay home when you don’t feel well, if you just use common-sense measures, you can probably avoid the more serious consequences of COVID,  regardless of the strain.

With Delta, it took a long time for us to figure out how serious this was. I think this is going to go much quicker. So sure, there’s some uncertainty. But the other thing that we know is that if you mask indoors, if you get vaccinated, if you stay home when you don’t feel well, if you just use common-sense measures, you can probably avoid the more serious consequences of COVID,  regardless of the strain. 

The science is working, the systems that we’ve got in place for surveillance are working. We will soon have answers about what kind of vaccination we’re going to need for Omicron, and it’s likely that we’re not going to need anything more than what we’ve already got. At least that’s a possibility.

Should people be taking extra precautions, like masking and vaccinating, now that Omicron is expected to spread here?

I don’t call those extra precautions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said all along, even before the surge that we’re in now, that if you live in an area that has very high rates of transmission, here are the recommendations: You should wear a mask indoors in public places. You should certainly get vaccinated. All of these are just part of our routine, and they should stay part of our routine. Because we know that vaccinated people can get infected. We know that they’re likely not going to get real sick, but they can get infected and transmit to others who maybe haven’t been vaccinated. 

So it is probably not a good idea to say, “Well, I’ve had my vaccine, I can go out, I can go into McDonald’s or go to the bars without my mask on.” I think that’s probably not a good idea, from a public health perspective.

For kids younger than 5 who currently can’t get vaccinated, what do you recommend for parents? Should they avoid bringing their kids to public places indoors? 

I’ve seen a lot of little kids at the grocery store over the past 18 months, and wearing a mask is just not a problem for them. If you can take precautions for the little ones, and you should, then I think doing reasonable things like going to the grocery store is probably OK. That includes masking and getting everybody in the household vaccinated. 

What about international travel? Many of our readers have family and friends in other countries and may want to visit each other. 

There’s a lot of controversy around whether the world acted too fast in shutting down flights and closing borders during these past few days. I’m not going to get into that debate. But I will say that governments and airlines have really strict policies about how you can travel. For example, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is still flying to South Africa, at least as far as I know, but they just have really strict guidelines now. 

If you follow those, it’s probably OK. It’s a question of having a plan when you get there. If you’re not vaccinated and you get sick, what are your plans? What are you going to do? 

What should people concerned about Omicron be looking for in the coming days and weeks? 

More information. There will be a lot of information that will come out as we learn more. The questions that we need to get answered and have the greatest impact on people are, number one, if I’m vaccinated, am I protected? Number two, is it in our community? Can I get infected? What are the clinical symptoms? 

That will all become more clear in the next week or two. 

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...