The world is still trying to get a handle on the latest COVID-19 curveball served up by the pandemic: the Omicron variant. After it was first detected in South Africa on Nov. 24 and labeled a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 26, officials are expressing concern that Omicron could be more transmissible and may overtake Delta as the dominant variant. Scientists are also concerned that the "Frankenstein mix" of mutations to the virus's proteins could make currently available shots less effective against the latest variant. But according to Scott Gottlieb, MD, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), experts are optimistic that COVID vaccines will still offer plenty of protection from Omicron.
Gottlieb kicked off a Nov. 28 interview on CBS' Face the Nation by immediately addressing concerns raised by the recently discovered variant. The virus expert was cautious to point out that while questions over the virulence of the virus and the threats to immunity remain, vaccine manufacturers are confident that those who are up to date on their shots will still be well defended against Omicron.
"The question here is going to be whether or not a fully boosted individual—someone who's had three doses of vaccine—has good protection against this variant right now," said Gottlieb. "If you talk to people in vaccine circles, people who are working on a vaccine, they have a pretty good degree of confidence that a boosted vaccine, so three full doses of vaccine, is going to be fairly protective against this new variant."
Still, Gottlieb was quick to caution that experts still needed plenty of information to get a clear answer on how effective boosters would be against Omicron. While clinical trials may still be some time away, he said he expected tests using the blood of vaccinated patients would return data later this week or early next week.
"Now, I would expect that those studies are going to show that the neutralization against this virus declined substantially. But that doesn't mean that the vaccines won't be effective," he said.
But while blood tests may answer some initial questions, Omicron's unique physical attributes are alarming to health officials. According to The Guardian, experts are particularly concerned about specific mutations that "have been associated with changes to the spike protein that might make it unrecognizably different to the version of COVID our vaccines were designed to target."
At the moment, health officials are warning people to be on high alert, but not to panic. That may be a challenge when there's still so much unknown—and when the information we do have is not particularly promising. Omicron's mutations could very well make it more difficult for the antibodies produced by vaccination and prior infection to target, as Jesse Bloom, PhD, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told The Washington Post.
"This thing is a Frankenstein mix of all of the greatest hits," Stephen Hoge, MD, president of vaccine producer Moderna, told The New York Times. "It just triggered every one of our alarm bells."
However, Gottlieb pointed out that a third shot should have a different protective effect than just the original regimen. "It's not just more antibodies that you develop, but you develop antibodies against more parts of the virus," he explained about the boosters, adding that this was giving vaccine manufacturers confidence about their effectiveness. "That could give a really strong impetus to trying to get more people boosted."