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Omicron Essentials: A Q&A with COVID Scientist Nathan Grubaugh

December 03, 2021

Nathan Grubaugh, Ph.D., associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health, collaborates with public health agencies and diagnostic labs across Connecticut to track emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron, using a genomic surveillance system. He shares his insights about the latest variant, its potential health implications and the importance of vaccines.

What is the Omicron variant and how it is different from other COVID variants?

NG: With 47 defining mutations, Omicron is the most divergent SARS-CoV-2 variant yet identified. Though it evolved independently of other variants, they share several key mutations, some of which have been previously associated with enhanced transmissibility and/or immune escape. However, we currently know very little about Omicron, including its ability to compete with Delta and its impact on vaccines.

Should people who are vaccinated be concerned about the Omicron variant? What about those who are unvaccinated? How about those who have had COVID-19 previously?

NG: We currently do not have any data to know for sure the impact that Omicron will have on immune evasion, both from vaccines and previous infection. Omicron has 30 mutations in the spike protein, many previously associated with antibody escape, so we expect that it will have some effect. But exactly how much is very difficult to predict at this point. We should know a lot more in the next 2 to 4 weeks.

What precautions should people in the United States take with the discovery of the Omicron variant?

NG: First and foremost, we should be concerned about what is happening right now with Delta. Cases in Connecticut and across the U.S. are on the rise, which was expected with the winter months and the holiday season. To stop Delta, and to not give Omicron a chance to spread, we need to focus on reducing local transmission through mask wearing in public, routine testing, isolating when exposed or positive and keeping up with the recommended vaccinations.

Would a booster shot offer protection against the Omicron variant?

NG: Again, it is hard to know the effects of Omicron on vaccines until we have more data. However, there is nothing to expect that vaccines will be completely ineffective against Omicron, so boosters should remain as a high priority. If anything, they will help to slow the spread of Delta and put ourselves in a better position to control Omicron.

What can be done to stop these new COVID-19 variants from emerging and threatening global health?

NG: One word: vaccines. We live in an interconnected global society, and we’ve seen numerous times how something that emerges in one part of the world can spread all over in a matter of days. Thus, we need to treat the world as one population. As long as there are communities without access to vaccines and transmission is allowed to persist, more variants will emerge. Global vaccine distribution should be the number one goal of every wealthy nation right now.

Learn more about the Grubaugh Lab and its genomic surveillance here.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on December 03, 2021