USF health experts say it’s too early to speculate on new COVID-19 variant’s impact

There is not enough information yet on the omicron variant to know if vaccines will be effective in protecting people, according to USF health professor Thomas Unnasch. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant, is raising concerns worldwide as the most mutated version of the virus so far, according to USF health professor Thomas Unnasch. However, he said with the information known at this point, the effects of the variant are still uncertain.

This variant was first detected in Botswana in early November and since then has spread to South Africa. As of Monday evening, no cases of omicron had been detected in the U.S.

Dean of the College of Public Health Donna Petersen said Monday that USF will be issuing spring guidance shortly but didn’t comment on the new variant and if it will affect next semester’s plans.

For now, Unnasch said there is no reason for people to change their holiday plans because there is no direct threat from the variant yet.

“It’s something that may be a problem, and it’s something we want to keep an eye on, but it’s not something that’s a real … direct threat,” he said. “It’s just something we want to keep an eye on and recognize that it’s out there and see what we can figure out [about] how much of a threat it can be.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Sunday released a technical brief emphasizing the overall global risk related to omicron as “very high.” The uncertainties related to the variant so far lie on how transmissible it is and if an increase in infections would relate to immune escape.

Unnasch said the variant has over 30 mutations of the protein that current vaccines use, including some mutations that have previously been linked with immune escape. This means the variant might be able to get around the antibodies produced by the vaccines.

“With these mutations, it could be a more infectious variant than anything we’ve seen before and also may have the potential for allowing people who have been vaccinated to become infected with the virus, but we don’t know that for sure,” Unnasch said. “These are still things that are potential problems on the horizon and not yet really known.”

Within two to three weeks, experts should have an answer on whether the vaccines are effective against the omicron variant, according to Unnasch. He said the full effect of omicron wouldn’t be seen in the U.S. for probably about two months, just like it took the delta variant a few months after detection to cause outbreaks in the country.

While omicron has caused a new wave of cases in South Africa, Unnasch said based on anecdotal reports from that country, people who have contracted the variant have presented mild symptoms.

“So although it is quite infectious and potentially could get around the immunity that we have with the vaccine, it may be that it is not causing very much illness, and that’s what we really worry about, people actually getting sick and [dying] and not whether they are infected with the virus or not,” Unnasch said.

As with other COVID-19 variants, Unnasch said a good way to prevent an omicron infection is by wearing masks in large group settings or in poorly ventilated areas.

“So I think [for] the holidays we could just keep an eye on [omicron] and just go ahead and do whatever you had planned originally,” Unnasch said. “Take some common sense precautions and then have a good time for the holidays.”