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What Every American Should Know About Omicron

Dr. Ashsih Jha gives the lowdown on the new variant Omicron.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

When it comes to the new COVID variant Omicron, messages are mixed: it is seemingly "very transmissible" and "cause of concern," but not cause for "panic," since no one knows how dangerous it may be, or how long it's actually been around. What to make of all this, and how should it change your behavior, if at all? Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, appeared on Pod Save America today to offer essential advice. Read on for all 7 of his life-saving tips—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Virus Expert Says Here's Why He is Concerned

Doctor with blood sample of Covid-19 Omicron B.1.1.529 Variant and general data of covid-19 Coronavirus Mutations.

Why are virus experts concerned over Omicron? "That's a great question," said Dr. Jha. "And look, every month, six weeks we hear about a new variant—Lambda, Mu. Most of those we look at and we sort of shrug our shoulders and think that's probably not going to be a big deal and they have not turned out to be a big deal." Omicron, however, "has two things that have gotten a lot of us concerned. First is that it took off in a really kind of impressive way in South Africa—from the days that it was first detected in the region of South Africa. It just became dominant very, very quickly that doesn't usually happen to variants. And when it does, it makes us think and worry that this is going to be a very, very contagious variant. And that's in the backdrop of having Delta around. So the idea that you'd have something even more contagious than Delta is concerning, that's sort of number one."

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Virus Expert Says The Variant Has Many Mutations to Worry About

Scientists and microbiologists with PPE suit and face mask hold test tube and microscope in lab

"Number two is when we sequenced this variant, this virus and looked, there were a bunch of mutations on the spike protein. Now that's the really important part of the protein, that part of the virus that our antibodies target. We saw a lot of mutations that again, have people concerned about will our vaccines work as effectively. Will the monoclonal antibodies that we have work as effectively? So is it more contagious and will it really push our vaccines? Those are the two things that look different about this variant compared to a lot of other variants out there."


Virus Expert Says Maybe the Mutation Has Been Around—Which Would be Good News

Healthcare worker with protective equipment performs coronavirus swab on a woman.

South Africa was the first to identify the mutation but it may have been circulating before, elsewhere. "Has it been around for a little bit longer? I think most evolutionary biologists that I'm speaking to think that maybe it began circulating more like mid-October so maybe this isn't quite as bad as it looks. That'd be fabulous, right? Because that would mean it's maybe not quite as contagious as it looks. And that would be a good thing. We've got to sort this out a bit and one of the ways we're going to do it is we're going to see as it lands in other places, what it does in those places, it will arrive in the United States. If it's not already here, we'll watch how it takes off here. And we will have much better data on this."

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Virus Expert Said Vaccines Should Help Protect You From Omicron

Young woman taking a vaccine from her doctor.

"So look, the variant has a lot of changes, so that spike protein, but as I said, we worry about because that's the main place that our vaccines target, but it's not the only place our backs since our vaccines actually are quite impressive in what kind of a breadth of antibody response it generates," said Jha. "And we have antibodies to other parts of the virus, and those should largely stay intact. Now they may not be as important. They may not work as well. Maybe the spike protein antibodies are the most important. So the way I look at it is you may see w you know, right now, if you're boosted, you probably had 95% efficacy, uh, against getting infected. We might see a hit on that down to 60 or 50%. Again, I'm making up those numbers. I have no idea what it will actually be, but the idea that it will render our vaccines useless, I just don't buy it. The vaccines are too good. They have too many helpful properties. I think it's extremely unlikely that the vaccines will be rendered useless. The question is, is it going to be a small hit to the vaccine, or is it going to be a large get to the vaccine efficacy? That's what we don't know right now."

He continued: "The problem is, imagine it does take it down from 95 to 50%, that's still pretty good. And they will probably do a good job at preventing severe illness. And that's great. But one of the things that we wanted to do is we want to bring this pandemic to event, and that means we need highly effective vaccines and lots and lots of people vaccinated. And if there is a hit to the vaccine, that's going to make it harder to drag things out longer."

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Virus Expert Said: "I'd Be Surprised if it's Not Here Already"

crowded grocery store

"I'd be surprised if it's not here already," said Jha of Omicron. "The question is, what is our level of detection? How quickly can we identify it? My expectation is that we're going to see the first cases identified in these next few days. It's probably dozens of cases right now. Probably not hundreds. Once you get into hundreds or thousands of cases, our detection scheme will absolutely pick it up. So it's just that, you know, we're having 80, a hundred thousand cases a day, maybe if only a small number of Omicron. We may miss that for a few days, but I do think that's going to get better."

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Virus Expert Said Here's How to Approach the Holidays

Woman wearing a facemask while shopping for Christmas in London

"I'm not right now letting it change the way I think about the holidays," said Dr. Jha. "My mother-in-law is coming up from Florida for Christmas. Our family is going to do a sort of a mini-vacation for about five days, right after Christmas. The plan right now is to do all of those things. Why? Because all the adults are vaccinated and boosted and all of our kids are now vaccinated. Our youngest one is going to get a second shot soon, and that he'll be vaccinated by Christmas, fully vaccinated. So I think we're pretty safe." He said if Omicron turned out to "be way more contagious, if it turns out over the next couple of weeks that it looks like our vaccines really are not working as well, obviously we're going to want to reconsider that. But my guess is that most plans probably can go forward as is. There are things you can do to make it safer—if you're going to be in large indoor spaces, make sure you wear a mask, you can bring in testing as a way to make sure that no one is infected. When you get together with family and friends, there are ways of making it safer. I don't think it resets our clock back to March, 2020" unless the data proves otherwise.

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How to Stay Safe Out There

Doctor holding syringe in hospital.

Get vaccinated ASAP if you have not. "And personally, I think this is a no-brainer people should be getting boosters," said Jha. "Everybody over 18 should be getting a booster" six months after your last Pfizer or Moderna dose. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Alek Korab
Alek Korab is a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the ETNT Health channel on Eat This, Not That! Read more
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