UNC researchers working to learn more about omicron variant as 1st case is identified in US


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – The omicron COVID-19 variant is now in the United States. The CDC confirmed Wednesday a person in San Francisco who had recently traveled to South Africa tested positive for the new variant.

Will it overtake delta as the primary strain of COVID-19?

“I think it’s inevitable, yes. We will see it. Whether it out-competes and becomes the dominant strain remains to be seen because that’s not yet the case in South Africa yet. It’s still at very low frequency in South Africa,” said Melissa Miller, director of the Clinical Microbiology and Molecular Microbiology Laboratories for UNC Health.

It’s not yet known which vaccine is most effective against omicron. Early evidence shows that vaccines seem to be working at keeping those infected from getting critically ill.

“Early data are somewhat mixed. Again, we don’t have complete information, but some of the initial cases where this was detected where people were vaccinated and fairly asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic. I think we’ll get other reports from other parts of the world about how much that’s still the case,” said Dr. David Wohl, professor of Infectious Diseases and Principal Investigator, ACTIV-2 Clinical Trial at UNC Health.

But the news may not be as positive when it comes to fighting off omicron for those who do become ill — including the unvaccinated.

“Some of our monoclonal antibodies may not work against omicron, including the Regeneron compound that we use preferentially right now. So that may require a shift to monoclonal antibodies that do work against this particular variant,” Wohl said. He added that oral anti-viral treatments could prove to be successful.

One of the reasons omicron is a concern is that it has a higher rate of mutations with close to 50 in all.

“The main concern is getting to the high number of changes that we see in the spike protein and the unknown nature of what this means for us,” Miller said.

Sometimes those mutations can make the virus more dangerous and other times less dangerous.

“The mutations that make the virus less able to replicate, that’s not going to survive, kills the virus. It doesn’t replicate to the next cells. So when we see infections and increased infections with a mutated virus, it’s because that one has survived over all the other mutations that have happened in this virus,” Miller explained.

Researchers know new variants will likely surface for years to come. That could mean vaccination practices might need to change.

“And it could be that there’s a cocktail of different types of vaccines put into one vaccine to cover anticipated mutations,” said Wohl.

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