Omicron Variant: “A Little Too Much Hype, Saying This Is the Next Scary Thing”
Infectious disease experts on whether Omicron’s arrival should influence our outlook and behavior, and how BU will prepare for, and detect, it
The new coronavirus variant—first detected in South Africa, and named Omicron by the World Health Organization—has stirred up concerns around the world, sent stock markets on a roller-coaster ride, triggered new air travel bans, and raised a number of questions. On Monday, President Joe Biden addressed the American public just after returning from his Thanksgiving break on Nantucket, calling for calm and stating the variant should be a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
“We have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before,” he said at a White House press conference. “You have to get your vaccine—you have to get the shot, you have to get the booster.”
Scientists are scrambling to understand how the mutations in Omicron may affect the virus’ transmissibility and mortality rate and whether or not existing COVID-19 vaccines are effective against it.
To learn more about the implications of Omicron, and the storm of media coverage around it, The Brink spoke to Boston University infectious disease expert Davidson Hamer, who is a member of BU’s Medical Advisory Group that has been guiding the University’s COVID-19 response since March 2020. He also chairs a group where clinicians and leaders from BU, Harvard University, Tufts University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology share data and insights on campus coronavirus response efforts. He is a faculty member of BU’s School of Public Health, School of Medicine, and National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories as well.
And to find out how Omicron will affect BU’s community health protocols and end-of-semester travel for students, we also spoke with Judy Platt, BU’s chief health officer and executive director of Student Health Services. Platt chairs BU’s Medical Advisory Group, oversees clinical management and isolation of students and employees who test positive for coronavirus, and helps manage BU’s contact tracing efforts. She is also cochair of BU’s Vaccine Preparedness Group, which has overseen the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots allocated to BU by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Here’s what Hamer and Platt told us about the Omicron variant.
with Davidson Hamer and Judy Platt
The Brink: It seems like a lot of media coverage is focusing on the potential scary outcomes of Omicron—does it seem too early for that message to be sent? What’s your temperature read on how balanced the reporting has been on this?
Hamer: I think there’s been a lot of overreaction—[including] governments banning air travel. The [public health] measures that have been in place, if continued to be effectively utilized—such as [preflight] COVID testing, ensuring travelers are vaccinated, doing predeparture testing within 48 to 72 hours of traveling, or quarantining upon arrival, with COVID testing five to seven days later—those kinds of measures should help limit the spread of new variants broadly, meaning all new coronavirus variants, including Omicron. There’s been a little too much hype, saying this is the next scary thing, but we don’t know much about it yet.
The Brink: Many reports are saying that Omicron has significantly more variations to the virus’ spike protein than other variants. Is that the case or are these levels of mutations par for the course in terms of how viruses mutate?
Hamer: I think it’s par for the course, but the concern is that the number of mutations is much higher than we’ve seen in previous variants. It’s a much larger number of mutations in areas of the virus that are important for binding to cells, and if the virus is better able to bind to cells, that means it could lead to a higher concentration of virus and be more transmissible. Is this going to be much more transmissible? Is this a greater threat [than previous variants]? We don’t know yet. The reassuring thing is that the measures we’ve been using to control the spread of COVID-19—avoiding public gatherings, mask use, ventilation, anybody who has symptoms getting tested and isolated, close contacts going into quarantine—all those public health measures will work to control the spread of this variant, too.
The Brink: Is the arrival of Omicron on the global scene a reason for people here to start changing their behavior now?
Hamer: I don’t think Omicron is a reason to change behavior now, but the case numbers for the state have been rising gradually, and if you look at some of the surrounding states, they’re seeing a progressive rise, too. Maine and Vermont are starting to have a bit of a healthcare [capacity] impact. In Massachusetts, we’ve had a slight increase in terms of hospitalization, but it’s been nowhere [close to] where we were in terms of April 2020, and that’s thanks to the protective effect of vaccines.
Omicron is a threat, but it hasn’t been identified yet in the United States, although it probably will be soon. But with good public health mitigation efforts, we should be able to reduce spread and reduce risk. I would be cautious eating out at restaurants and being inside public places where mask use cannot be maintained. For gathering with family and friends, make sure everyone is vaccinated, and think about ways to create better ventilation, maybe opening a window. I’d back off a little on eating out and being in public venues where not everyone is wearing masks and where ventilation may not be sufficient.
The Brink: What’s the biggest takeaway people should have from the Omicron news?
Hamer: I think the biggest thing is, we have very little information so far. The variant is characterized genetically, but clinically and from a public health standpoint, we know little. Is it more transmissible? Does it evade the immune response from vaccination? I think right now, the answer to most questions is, we need more evidence. We need to reassure people—there is a global panic setting in, and it’s overdone. If we stick with the tried-and-true infection control measures—I don’t think we need to do a complete lockdown—and we are more cautious during the next four to eight weeks going through the holidays, all that will help keep things under reasonable control.
The Brink: Is there any hope that Omicron won’t turn out to be as bad as people fear it will be?
Hamer: The Mu variant, which was circulating in Colombia and Ecuador, just sort of fizzled out. That’s an example of a variant of concern that didn’t end up panning out to be a major threat.
The Brink: The Omicron mutations seem to be in places of the virus that would increase transmissibility. How does increased transmissibility of a virus affect its mortality rate?
Hamer: If a virus is better able to transmit and propagate, but it kills its host quickly, it will stop spreading. So, there is roughly an inverse relationship—if it’s much more transmissible, it’s usually associated with less mortality, and lower risk of death. But it’s hard to say whether that’s the case for Delta, for example. Delta is much more transmissible [than earlier coronavirus variants], but in many places where Delta has circulated, there has been an increasing number of people getting vaccinated. Generally speaking, if a virus becomes more able to kill its host quickly, it is not able to spread very far. High mortality is not technically good for a virus that wants to spread.
The Brink: What implications does the Omicron variant have, particularly for BU faculty, staff, and students who have to or intend to travel internationally?
Platt: International travel has always posed risk due to the number of potential people one can come in contact with at airports, on the plane, and more importantly, those individuals whom one interacts with once arriving at the destination. Given the current landscape, with travel bans being enacted, people really need to be sure that they know the restrictions that are in place and take time to plan and be prepared.
The Brink: How do people who plan such travel determine what travel bans are currently in effect?
Platt: Look to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other travel alert sites like this.
The Brink: If there is a surge as a result of the new variant, what will BU do to ensure that students will be able to finish the semester and take their exams?
Platt: We expected an increase in cases after the Thanksgiving holiday and this is why we have not changed any of our public health protocols. Vaccination mandates, regular testing, masking indoors, enhanced air filtration measures will continue to be important as we learn more about Omicron and will help to prevent large surges as new variants are identified.
The Brink: If there is a surge and some number of BU students cannot get home for intersession, what will the University do to help?
Platt: Even with the expected increase in cases over the winter months, we do not anticipate that domestic students will encounter any travel restrictions within the United States. For our international students who may have difficulty returning home during the intersession recess, we encourage those students to request intersession housing through the BU Housing website now. The deadline to do so is December 6.
The Brink: What is BU going to do to determine if Omicron is here?
Platt: We are fortunate to have our own clinical testing laboratory at BU, as well as a dedicated team of scientists and researchers [at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL)] performing sequencing on our positive samples. If and when Omicron is here, we will be able to detect it. The important public health measures that we have consistently implemented mean that we are already prepared if we do detect this variant. With the support of our entire community in regular testing and masking indoors, we will weather new variants together with a strong community who has continually shown they look out for each other.