(NEW YORK) – The latest COVID-19 variant of concern, omicron, first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa last week – and now discovered across the United States – continues to worry many Americans with still much unknown about the virus.
Health authorities continue to call for calm, while scientists across the globe are searching for answers.
“Right now we’re really in a state of knowledge acquisition,” said Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts. “We really need to know more. We need to know how pathogenic it is. We need to know how transmissible it is and we need to know if it escapes antibody responses induced by the vaccines.”
Experts warn that the answers to these questions may not come for several months.
“What is going to happen is that our confidence will shrink over time as opposed to saying that during this time we will have an answer. And that is what we need to acknowledge,” he said. John Brownstein, epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, “We just need a little patience,” Brownstein added.
When do we know about omicron transmission?
However, researchers expect to have estimates for transferability “probably ahead of some of the other questions we have,” Brownstein said.
At a press conference on Wednesday, WHO’s COVID technical director, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove that there is some suggestion that omicron may be more transferable, but it is too early to say definitively. “We expect to have more information on transmission within days, not necessarily weeks,” Van Kerkhove said.
“Based on the data collected through monitoring, we have a rough estimate of the proportion of infections related to omicron, where you can start making basic estimates of transmissibility very quickly,” Brownstein said.
During the White House COVID-19 briefing last Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s senior medical adviser, said that as more omicron cases are discovered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be able to model how the new variant will spread, similar to how quickly the CDC predicted that the delta variant would spread from the initial 3% to 4% of cases to almost all cases.
“We really do not know what is going to happen, how well it will compete or not compete with the delta, but we will know as more cases arise and what the doubling time for the relative percentage of omicron versus delta will be,” said Fauci.
When do we know how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are on omicron?
The Food and Drug Administration said in a statement Tuesday that they are working “as soon as possible” to evaluate the potential impact of omicron on current treatments, vaccines and tests, and said they expect to receive responses in the next few weeks.
If a change of current vaccines is needed, vaccine manufacturers say they are ready to make those changes quickly.
In a statement Sunday, Pfizer and BioNTech said they have been monitoring the effectiveness of their vaccine against new variants, and if a “vaccine escape variant emerges”, they expect to be able to make a “tailor-made vaccine against the variant of about 100 days, subject to regulatory approval. “
Matt Barrows, Modern’s senior director of production, told ABC News that the company has the capacity to produce an omicron-specific booster vaccine within a month if needed. He said experiments testing the effectiveness of their current omicron vaccine are underway and will take at least two to three weeks.
“Although we have not proven it yet, there is every reason to believe that if you are vaccinated and boosted, you will at least have some degree of cross-protection, very likely against serious illness, even against the Omicron variant, said Fauci.
When do we know if omicron causes more serious illness?
Learning whether this version of the virus is more deadly can take many months, experts say.
“We do not even know if omicron will have the ability to overtake the delta, and we are dealing with a delta rise right now. There are many ifs and many open questions,” Brownstein said.
Currently, the delta variant handles almost all cases throughout the United States, with 99.9% of cases in the country from the delta variant.
Health authorities are encouraged by the mild symptoms that omicron cases experience so far. According to health officials, the man who tested positive for omicron in Minnesota was fully vaccinated and had been boosted in early November. The woman identified in Colorado is also reported to have only mild symptoms and was fully vaccinated, but not boosted.
Early cases identified in South Africa have also not reported any serious illness, according to local officials. “Right now, it does not seem like there is a big signal of a high degree of difficulty, but it is too early to say,” Fauci said in an interview with CNN.
Today, there are more than 400 confirmed cases of Omicron in over 30 countries across the globe, including the United States. While researchers work to get more answers, experts urge not to wait and be vaccinated or boosted if they are eligible.
“As it is now with the information we have, you do the best with the information you have in front of you, and that information says you get an incredible benefit from getting that booster,” Brownstein said.
Barouch said the only way to stop new strains is to vaccinate people across the globe.
On Friday, the White House announced that it was sending out 11 million more vaccines worldwide in an effort to increase vaccination around the world. The United States has shipped 291 million doses so far, and President Joe Biden on Thursday announced plans to provide 200 million more doses worldwide over the next 3 months.
“Currently, sub-Saharan Africa has less than seven percent vaccination rate. And so it’s no surprise that new varieties are popping up in that part of the world,” Barouch said. “The only way to stop these varieties is to have a widespread vaccination campaign that really reaches all four corners of the planet. “
Esra Demirel, MD, is an OB-GYN resident physician at Northwell Health-North Shore University Hospital & LIJ Medical Center and is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.
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