A new variant of the coronavirus, Omicron, is causing concern among the medical community.
“Unfortunately, there’s a new variant that is concerning,” Dr. Ashish K Jha, a professor at Brown University, tweeted Friday morning. “Is it more transmissible than the current strain, Delta? Does it cause more severe disease? And will it render prior infections or vaccines less effective? … We will know more in the coming days to weeks,” he said.
And while we are still learning about this new strain, another medical expert, Georgetown immunologist Dr. Mark Dybul, has already reached a stark conclusion: We are still in the depths of the pandemic. Even if Omicron does not prove to be worrisome, a more transmissible, vaccine-resistant variant is just around the corner, a reality Dybal calls “inevitable.”
In fact, Dybul predicts the pandemic will prevent a return to normal due to continued mutations and trailing treatments for another two or three years.
Dybul, the CEO of Enochian BioSciences and professor at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Medicine, said early information about Omicron did not look good.
With about 30 mutations in its spike protein, the variant has the potential to be vaccine resistant, Dybul said. Although we don’t know where the strain initially developed, it has already spread to some individuals in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium. Although some countries including Italy, Singapore, and France have already put travel restrictions in place, the World Health Organization has cautioned nations to not jump to conclusions.
Thousands of COVID variants already exist, and new ones emerge constantly. In the next couple of weeks, we will know if the newly identified variant has the potential to be more transmissible and vaccine resistant, which would be the worst possible combination, said Dybul.
The most prominent strain of COVID-19, the Delta variant, has largely outperformed other variants, but it will be outcompeted eventually. The Delta strain has been positive in a way for vaccinated individuals because it is able to reproduce in vaccinated people but is still vulnerable to vaccines, said Dybul. Many of the shots have been doing a good job of protecting people against death and serious illness despite the Delta variant reproducing within them at times.
To become a major problem, the new strain would have to be more transmissible and vaccine resistant, and outperform the Delta variant. It’s too early to tell whether this will occur, said Dybul, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen eventually.
A mutation like that “is going to happen,” he said. “We can’t predict when. This could be it. It could already be somewhere else in the world and hasn’t reared its head yet, but it’s inevitable.”
Even if the new variant outperforms Delta, the vaccines we have currently can be adjusted. Yet, it would take between three to five months for the adjusted vaccines to go through adjustment, testing, and the regulatory process, Dybul said. Even then, people would have to get revaccinated or get a booster shot.
To avoid a cycle of vaccination and re-vaccination, Dybul said, new strategies and treatments are needed. This could include a COVID-treating pill developed by Pfizer or easy-to-administer inhaled products that can be used to prevent or treat COVID.
“A vaccine-only approach is never going to work,” Dybul said. Instead, he believes a 5-part strategy that includes mandatory boosters every 6 months, continued mask wearing and the development of more treatments is the best way forward.
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