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Virus Expert Says Here's Why You "Should be Concerned"

"If ever there was a more proficient reminder of the tricks this virus has up its sleeve, this is it."
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

The new COVID variant Omicron has been confirmed to be in America, and may spread rapidly, as scientists race to determine how transmissible it is, and how severe. How can you stay safest right now, until we all know more? Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, gave his take from the frontlines on his podcast. Read on for five essential life-saving pieces of advice—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

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Dr. Osterholm Says "We Should be Concerned"

Doctor with blood sample of Covid-19 Omicron B.1.1.529 Variant and general data of covid-19 Coronavirus Mutations.
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"We should be concerned. What I'm worried about more than anything is are we going to find this new variant spreading in a world of indifference? The fact that just as we have seen with Delta, we have many places in the world today that seem to take this pandemic as something in history in the rearview mirror—done. This variant will remind us: It's not." He added "that the news of this latest variant, which was given the name Omicron by the WHO, was not at all what I was hoping for on the holiday weekend, needless to say… though, there's almost a painful level of irony that comes with its arrival being announced over our Thanksgiving. If ever there was a more proficient reminder of the tricks this virus has up its sleeve, this is it."

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2

These are the "Concerning Elements" of Omicron, Says Dr. Osterholm

Medical staff work in the intensive care ward for COVID-19 patients
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"From what I've seen to date this variant has some very concerning elements," said Osterholm. "The one critical aspect of this virus, that will make a variant become king of the virus hill, is transmissibility. What Omicron brings us is a combination of that with other very concerning factors. One of the most striking features is the sheer number of mutations that has in total. The variant contains around 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are located in the gene that forms a spike protein. For the sake of comparison, the Delta variant has anywhere from 13 to 17 mutations in the spike protein, as you know, the spike protein is what the virus uses to attach to and enter human cells and thus causing infection. It's also the piece of the virus that our vaccines have primarily used to in fact, recognize and target with antibodies and T cells. So anytime there are changes in this part of the virus, there's the potential for a dampened immune response. With Omicron, there are several mutations that have been previously linked to immune evasion. It also contains multiple mutations that have been tied to increase transmissibility. So that's a big reason why it's been designated as a variant of concern."

He noted sometimes these combos work against each other. So we need to wait and study and see.

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Dr. Osterholm Said the Vaccines May Protect You Even if There's a Decline in Their Effectiveness

Doctor holding Pfizer Biontech vaccine against coronavirus COVID disease
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"Can Omicron evade immune protection? We're still waiting for data on this….When it comes to the vaccines, some are predicting, we'll see a pretty notable drop in their effectiveness against infections from this variant," said Dr. Osterholm. "However, even for the decline like that were to occur, there's still a general belief that the current vaccines will largely protect recipients from severe disease and death due to T cell responses, which are less influenced by variants. We actually have experience with vaccine trials that were conducted in South Africa, in South America, late last year and early this year, in which at that time, both the Beta and Gamma variants were common. What did we see? Well for these variants vaccine effectiveness against infection declined substantially, but protection against severe infection remained relatively high."

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4

So Get Vaccinated or Boosted Now, Says Osterholm

Check-in for coronavirus vaccination against Covid-19 with doctor in the background.
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"So get vaccinated, get your booster dose," said Dr. Osterholm. "Even if you've heard reports about a variant specific vaccine, don't wait to get your booster. We know that the current vaccines have every reason to at least reduce severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths. Yes. We'd like to prevent all infections. And maybe that is what we'll see with a future vaccine, which may be four or months down the road, in terms of addressing specifically the Omicron variant. In the meantime, we've got to use exactly what we have. So get vaccinated, get your booster dose. Even if you've heard reports about a variant-specific vaccine, don't wait to get your booster."

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How to Stay Safe Out There

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Follow the public health fundamentals and help end this pandemic, no matter where you live—get vaccinated or boosted ASAP; if you live in an area with low vaccination rates, wear an N95 face mask, don't travel, social distance, avoid large crowds, don't go indoors with people you're not sheltering with (especially in bars), practice good hand hygiene, 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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