There is “no reason to panic” over the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, but it’s still a “great reason” for people to have their vaccines and their booster shots, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday.
Still, Collins told CNN’s “State of the Union” that it will take at least two or three more weeks to determine if the antibodies that have been generated by the current vaccines that everyone “have all had or should have had” will offer protection against the mutation coming from South Africa that has put the world on alert.
There are good reasons to believe that the current vaccines will also offer protection against the omicron variant, which creates spike proteins of a different shape, but it will take two or three more weeks to be certain, he added.
The vaccines that were generated against the original coronavirus have worked well with other variants, including the delta version responsible for the current surge of disease in the United States, and the booster shots “work particularly well,” said Collins.
“The booster enlarges the capacity of your immune system to recognize all kinds of different spike proteins it’s never seen,” said Collins. “This is a great day to get boosted or find out how to do so at vaccines.gov.”
Meanwhile, “it’s certainly not good news” that there is yet another variant, said the doctor.
“We don’t know yet how much of an impact this will have,” he said. “It ought to redouble our efforts to use the tools that we have, which are vaccinations and boosters, and to be sure we’re getting those to the rest of the world, too, which the U.S. is doing more than any other country.”
The emergence of the new virus also means people must continue to pay attention to mitigation strategies, particularly social distancing and wearing masks when around people who may not be vaccinated, said Collins.
“I know, America, you’re really tired of hearing about those things but the virus is not tired of us, and it’s shape-shifting itself,” he said.
There is also no data to suggest that omicron will cause more serious illness than previous strains of the virus, and there is a report from South Africa that people infected with the omicron variant have a milder illness, said Collins.
However, he stressed that “we think it’s more contagious,” as shown in its rapid spread through multiple districts in South Africa.
One of the major concerns with the delta variation was its increased ability to spread, but Collins said he doesn’t know if omicron will compete with delta.
“We’ve had occasions we thought a variant was going to take over in the United States,” said Collins. “Remember beta; it never took off because delta was so incredibly effective at spreading that it couldn’t compete. We don’t know what omicron looks like if it gets to our country. I hope it doesn’t but it’s fairly likely we’ll see cases. Will it be able to compete or fizzle?”
There is currently no evidence that the variant is in the United States, he added.
“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is looking at tens of thousands of isolates every week,” said Collins. “We’ll find out if it’s here.”