For some Covid experts, what’s most unsettling about the Omicron variant is all the uncertainty surrounding it. That’s what keeps John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, up at night.
“I’ve lost more sleep worrying about answering questions about Omicron than over Omicron itself,” he said during a panel at STAT’s “A Look Ahead at Biotech 2022”event last week.
Moore, like many other experts, is waiting for more data before judging how the new variant is going to pan out. More time will tell us whether Omicron will fizzle out and be forgettable like Beta, or if it will be much more consequential and replace Delta, in much the same way Delta replaced Alpha.
“If we start to see a lot of vaccinated people in the hospitals with Omicron, that’s going to be something that changes the face of the pandemic in the USA,” he said. “That’s not happened yet.”
But, he added, it’s not clear yet whether that’s because too little time has passed for the variant’s true impact to be revealed, or if it is because that worst-case scenario is not going to happen.
Another Omicron unknown is the share of Covid cases in the U.S. that involve the new variant. The small clusters seen so far do not tell experts enough, he said. Unsatisfied with the dearth of information, epidemiologists and infectious disease physicians are growing impatient — as is the public, which is clamoring for insights.
“We’re so thirsty for data now and therefore we’re reaching for anything,” Wafaa El-Sadr, founder and director of the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Program at Columbia University, said at the panel. She pointed to a recent 12-person study on Omicron that offered a very early look at the variant.
“You can see a lot of strange things in 12 people, and you’ve got to be very careful with what you generalize, El-Sadr said. She also cautioned against putting too much currency in anecdotes coming from the ground in South Africa and the U.K. “We’re all grasping at these little hints here and there, and that, I think, is quite unsettling.”
El-Sadr is confident that scientists will find more robust data in the coming weeks. Those findings, she said, will provide insight into how infectious the variant is, how deadly it is and most importantly whether it would be able to “outsmart” current vaccinations and treatments.
Right now, Moore said, the world is still in a phase of not having “enough information to know what’s going to happen.”
“There’s still a lot that we don’t have answers to yet,” said Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at NYU and Bellevue Hospital. “It does appear to be very infectious, likely even more infectious than Delta.”
Delta, she said, was so deadly because it was so infectious. “If so many people get infected, even if it’s a less virulent variant — which we still don’t have an answer on with Omicron— it can still be very deadly,” said Gounder.
“That’s actually what I’m most concerned about in the moment about Omicron,” she said.
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