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Omicron variant 'a great reason to go get boosted,' NIH director says

·Managing Editor
·4 min read
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  • Francis Collins
    American geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health
  • Anthony Fauci
    Anthony Fauci
    American immunologist and head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday that people concerned about the new Omicron variant should look into getting their COVID-19 booster vaccine shots.

"This is an important point. For people who are listening, who haven't yet gotten boosted but did get their original vaccine, and who are eligible now, this is another reason to do that now," Collins said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Because the booster, it basically enlarges the capacity of your immune system to recognize all kinds of different spike proteins it's never seen. This is a great day to go and get boosted, or find out how to do so at vaccines.gov," Collins continued.

Scientists are concerned that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus may be more contagious than previous iterations, and the new variant has rattled world governments and global markets since South African health officials reported its existence last week. Confirmed or suspected Omicron cases have been detected in Southern Africa, Europe, Australia, Israel and Hong Kong, prompting a range of travel restrictions and flight bans.

Much is still unknown about the Omicron variant, including how resistant it may be to vaccines and whether people who become infected develop worse or milder COVID-19 symptoms. But its high number of mutations — and their location on the virus’s spike protein — suggests the new variant will be more easily transmitted than earlier versions of the virus, scientists say.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser, said Sunday that he was particularly concerned with the rate that the Omicron variant "exploded" in South Africa, adding to the evidence that the variant can spread quicker than others.

"The profile of the mutations strongly suggests that it's going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection that you would get, for example, from a monoclonal antibody or from a convalescent serum after a person's been infected, and possibly even against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies. So it's not necessarily that that's going to happen, but it's a strong indication that we really need to be prepared for that," Fauci said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Fauci, also appearing on ABC's "This Week," further said it was "too early to say" whether the Omicron variant could prompt new lockdowns and mandates to combat the coronavirus.

"We don't know a lot about this virus. So we want to prepare as best as we can. But it may turn out that this preparation, although important, may not necessarily push us to the next level — people talking about lockdowns, people talking about that,” Fauci said. “We'll make decisions based on the science and the evidence, the way we always do," he added.

Collins, like Fauci, urged patience throughout their Sunday television appearances. Both pointed to boosters as part of the solution. 

"Stay tuned. We're going to get better information about this. There's no reason to panic. But it's a great reason to go get boosted," Collins said on CNN.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility that this could completely evade any protection by vaccine. It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost,” Fauci said on ABC. 

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved so-called booster shots for all adults, with a particular emphasis on people over 50. For people who received either of the mRNA vaccines — Pfizer or Moderna — this means a third shot at least six months after their first two vaccine series. For people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, this means a second shot at least two months after the first.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have said that they are prepared to quickly update their vaccines to combat the Omicron variant if needed. Johnson & Johnson said it is already testing its vaccine against Omicron.

"From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves," Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a press release.

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