More conclusive information about critical elements of the new omicron variant won’t be available for about two weeks, but scientific consensus seems to be building about its early signs: more transmissible yet less harmful than the delta variant.
In a briefing by the White House COVID-19 response team Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned several times that any such conclusions are premature, while reiterating previous comments that raised hope omicron won’t be the scourge some fear.
“It appears that with the cases that are seen, we’re not seeing a very severe profile of disease,’’ said Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser. “In fact, it might be – and I underscore might – be less severe, as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases.’’At the same time, Fauci noted that evidence from South Africa – where scientists first identified omicron – suggests the variant is more contagious than its predecessors, as it becomes the country’s dominant strain.
Omicron is spreading quickly through parts of southern Africa, and a new lab study suggests it might elude some of the protection against infection from the Pfizer vaccine.Dr. Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, succinctly summarized omicron’s most relevant apparent features in a talk with reporters.
“This virus comes with both barrels loaded – high infectivity and potentially the ability for immune evasion,’’ Greene said. “But maybe what it’s lacking is pathogenicity.’’Among the many unanswered questions about omicron, one looms perhaps largest of all: How does it fare against vaccine-induced protection? Fauci said more will be known in that regard when the results of currents tests come out toward the end of next week. But he pointed out a new study in South Africa showed omicron yielded a higher rate of reinfection than other variants, an indication it has at least some ability to evade immunity.
Fellow response team members said the U.S. is in good position to fight off omicron thanks in large part to its abundant COVID-19 vaccines, which are expected to provide a certain level of protection from the new variant.
Coordinator Jeff Zients highlighted that 12.5 million vaccine doses were administered last week, the highest total since May, and that nearly 7 million Americans received booster shots, the biggest weekly number to date.However, the U.S. has been recording about 100,000 new infections a day, and more than 36% of the population – including 28% of adults – has yet to get fully vaccinated.“We have more tools than ever before to confront COVID and omicron,’’ Zients said, “and to continue to make progress in our fight against the virus.’’