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Number of mutations makes omicron worrisome, but COVID research gains are a silver lining

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Frank Augstein
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The reason omicron is concerning is because it has a large number of mutations compared to previous COVID-19 variants. But while we learn more, scientists urge calm.

A new COVID-19 variant is worrying scientists and has already led to some travel bans. In this interview, NPR science correspondent Sydney Lupkin talks to host Kelsey Snell about what we know and don't know in the short amount of time since the variant was first reported.

SNELL: What do we know about this variant?

LUPKIN: Well, South Africa first reported it, though that doesn't necessarily mean it originated there. Cases have also been reported in Botswana, but also in Israel, Belgium, the U.K., even Hong Kong.

Why are scientists and public health officials worried about it?

The reason omicron is concerning is because it has a large number of mutations compared to previous COVID-19 variants.

Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, says that is surprising. He expected the next variant would be a delta virus which had picked up a few more mutations. Somehow, this variant was sort of almost off the radar and then it picked up a very large number of mutations before it reached enough prevalence to be detected.

Specifically, omicron has (over) 30 new mutations on the virus's spike protein, and that spike is like the crowbar that the virus uses to invade healthy cells. It's important because the vaccine trains our immune systems to recognize that spike protein and respond to it.

If omicron has a different enough spike protein, what does that mean for how the vaccines work?

It means they may not work as well against this variant. That's worrisome, but it depends on if this variant is really easily transmitted or just kind of fizzles out. That is being studied, but South Africa has also reported a steep uptick in cases in the last few weeks.

But we don't yet know for sure how transmissible omicron will be overall. For example, there was another strain called beta that popped up this year. It was also identified in South Africa and similarly alarmed scientists over changes to the spike protein. But beta never spread all that widely. Instead, the delta variant ended up being more transmissible, and that became the dominant strain.

It will be hard for some people not to panic about omicron. Given what the last two years have been like, what do we know?

Compared to prior variants, it took a lot less time to sort of learn about omicron. For example, it took months for public health officials to be alerted to the alpha variant. But for omicron, it seems to be only weeks. Scientists already know how different it is from previous COVID variants and have better hypotheses for how that will play out.

Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, says one of the few silver linings of the pandemic is the drastic expansion of genomic epidemiology. That means scientists know from prior research which mutations will cause which characteristics of the virus to change.

There's also much better testing and surveillance and better information sharing. And vaccine manufacturers are ready and able to pivot. Moderna is already announcing plans to test its current vaccine and new versions of boosters against omicron.

According to Bloom, this is being done as a precaution. He believes we'll know more in a few weeks whether this variant is actually going to spread widely or not. So he's urging calm for now.

But as long as the virus is with us, it's going to keep mutating?

Exactly. So from a global public health perspective, what's crucial is getting more of the world vaccinated. Right now, there's still a big gap in vaccine access from country to country. And as long as the virus is able to circulate widely in places with low vaccine rates, it's going to evolve. And ultimately, that's going to impact everyone.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.