Doctors don’t know yet exactly how well the current Covid-19 vaccines protect people against the new Omicron variant that is now in the US, but what they do know is that people shouldn’t wait to get a vaccine or booster.
“Getting the maximum protection now is more important than ever and it’s not just because of Omicron,” US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told CNN Tuesday.
More than 40% of the US population still needs to roll up their sleeves and get fully vaccinated according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And only 23% of fully vaccinated adults in the US have been boosted.
On Monday, in the wake of the emerging Omicron variant news, the CDC made it easier to get protection, recommending everyone 18 and older get a booster.
Even if it takes a couple of weeks for scientists to get a better handle on current vaccines’ effectiveness against the new variant, here’s why the public health experts say you shouldn’t wait.
The Delta variant
While news is focused on the new Omicron variant, it’s the highly transmissible Delta variant that’s still a major problem in the US. Cases haven’t yet returned to the lows seen this summer.
On average the US is seeing more than 70,000 new Covid-19 cases and 730 deaths a day, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Boosters work well against the Delta variant. A study published Tuesday found that a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine lowers the risk of Covid-19 infection by 80% or more, over and above the protection offered by first two doses.
‘Tis the season for the coronavirus
Winter is here. It’s a season when people spend more time indoors where the virus spreads easier. One pre-print study that was done in Japan last year found the virus was 19 times more likely to spread indoors than outdoors. Virus particles also hang around longer in the drier winter weather and our noses get drier, potentially leaving them more vulnerable to infection.
Families also travel and get together for the holidays, increasing the risk of exposure.
Covid-19 vaccines should offer some protection no matter the variant
While companies are still testing vaccines to see how well they work against Omicron, there are at least hints that the current vaccines should protect people regardless of the variant, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Vaccines produce a strong and broad immune response that provides an extra cushion of protection, he said.
“Our experience with variants such as the Delta variant is that even though the vaccine isn’t specifically targeted to the Delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection, even against a variant that the vaccine wasn’t specifically directed at,” Fauci told a White House briefing Wednesday.
“That’s the reason why we feel even though we don’t have a lot of data on it, there’s every reason to believe that that kind of increase that you get with the boost would be helpful, at least in preventing severe disease of a variant like Omicron.”
The many mutations of the new variant that make it what Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health Tuesday labeled a “somewhat different animal.” That may diminish the degree of protection; however, the body’s immune system is “clever,” especially when vaccinated, he said.
“It not only boosts the level of antibodies, but it boosts the breadth of coverage that they have of spike proteins that your system hasn’t even seen before but is now ready for,” Collins said. “It is that phenomenon that I think is going to help us here.”
The danger of making more mutants
Getting vaccinated is not just about protecting yourself, experts say – it is also about protecting others. The more people who are infected, the more chances there are for variants to evolve in their bodies.
People who are unvaccinated often take longer to beat back infections and that gives the virus more chance to change.
“The virus mutates when people get infected. It doesn’t mutate in the air, so even though you’ve got infected, and you did fine, guess what,” Dr. Jorge E. Rodriguez, an internal medicine specialist who practices in Newport Beach, California and CNN medical analyst, said Tuesday. “You may very well have contributed to mutations that will be stronger, so there is no such thing as a good infection even if you survived it with minimal symptoms.”
Treatments may not work as well
If you get sick, your options for treatment may be more limited with the Omicron variant.
Due to the multiple mutations on the spike protein that Regeneron’s monoclonal therapies target, the company is investigating if the treatments will continue to work as well.
“Further analyses are ongoing to confirm and quantify this potential impact using the actual Omicron variant sequence,” Regeneron said Tuesday. It said the mutations seen in the Omicron variant indicate its monoclonal antibody treatment, which kickstarts the immune system, might not work as well against infections caused by the new variant.
Gilead, the maker of remdesivir, the only antiviral that’s been approved for treating Covid-19, said there’s no indication the mutations seen in the Omicron variant will limit the drug’s effects, although the company is running tests to be sure.
Omicron may not dominate
Scientists still don’t know if the Omicron variant will become the dominant strain like Delta did. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, thinks it is unlikely.
“When you look at the sequence of the virus in terms of its transmissibility, it looks a lot like the Alpha variant that arose out of the UK and came to the US at the beginning part of the year, which was more transmissible than the original lineage but not more transmissible than Delta,” Hotez told CNN Tuesday.
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“On that basis, I actually don’t think Omicron is necessarily going to outcompete Delta.”
Even if it doesn’t dominate, Omicron could still become a problem for people who have become infected and recovered and not been vaccinated, he said.
New Covid-19 vaccine would take time
If, for some reason the current vaccines don’t provide as much protection, there is a back-up plan. But it will take time.
Pfizer and Moderna said that they are already testing an Omicron-specific Covid-19 vaccine just in case, even as they are still trying to figure out how the well the current vaccines work against the variant.
“If indeed we need it, we will not waste any time,” Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla told CNN Monday. When the Beta and Delta variants started to circulate, Bourla said the company also made vaccines specifically for those variants, but they weren’t needed. The original vaccines offered good protection. Bourla believes the same will be true with Omicron.
“I doubt that the results will be that we can find ourselves that we are not protecting at all,” Bourla said.
Moderna’s chief medical officer Dr. Paul Burton said he is concerned about this “new wrench that has been thrown into the fight against Covid now,” but he still thinks his company’s vaccine provides protection.
“I think we have to assume that some vaccination, even against a very altered and highly dangerous variant, is extremely good to have,” he said.
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And even if a special vaccine is needed, it will take about 100 days to get it out into people’s arms. The Biden administration said it is working closely with manufacturers to make sure new vaccines, if necessary, would be accessible quickly.
In the meantime, getting a vaccine or booster now, rather than waiting is the best course of action.
“Bottom line is if you want to maximize your protection against all the variants, getting boosted is the way to go,” Murthy said.