‘Almost Frankensteinish’ Omicron variant worrying, but don’t panic, scientist says

November 29, 2021
The discovery of the Omicron variant was announced just last week in South Africa. Since then, it has cropped up in other countries.
The discovery of Omicron was announced just last week in South Africa, but the variant has quickly become a key concern. iStock

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes the illness COVID-19 has the full attention of the leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID tracking team. “It's almost Frankensteinish. I mean, it's sort of got all the worst characteristics,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. He’s a public health expert who serves as a professor in MUSC’s College of Medicine and is also affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The number of mutations that occurred in this particular variant is striking. There were over 50 mutations detected, about 30 of those occurring in the spike. The spike is an important part of the virus because it's how it attaches to us and transmits.”

Researchers in South Africa announced the discovery of Omicron last week. The World Health Organization warned that its high number of mutations could lead to new surges of COVID-19 and labeled it a “variant of concern.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

But Sweat said a lot of questions remain. “I think people should be careful not to panic. It's scary, there's no question that it's scary because of the genetics and the shape of the virus. But there are two key issues. One is the transmissibility of it. And the other one is whether it makes you sicker.” 

On the transmissibility front, Omicron seems to be a speedy spreader. The variant hasn’t been identified in the U.S. yet, but Sweat said it’s probably just a matter of time. Two cases have already shown up in Canada, just to our North. 

And Omicron’s performance in South Africa shows it may have the edge on earlier mutations.  “It does look like in Gauteng Province, specifically in the Johannesburg and Pretoria areas, Omicron really outcompeted Delta. Delta is very transmissible, and if Omicron outcompeted it, it's suggesting that it would do that on a larger scale.”

But does that mean Omicron will make people sicker than other variants or the original strain? Not necessarily. “There’s a chance that while it could be more transmissible, it could cause a very mild infection,” Sweat said. “There are a few people in South Africa who were saying the cases were all mostly mild. But that may be because they were mostly in young people. Also, serious outcomes tend to take some time to develop. It's so early, they don't know.”

We’ll have a better idea in two to three weeks how ominous Omicron really is, Sweat said. In the meantime, we’re in a better position to deal with a new variant than in the past. “We have several things on our side. We have learned a lot about transmission. You know, it's really transmitted through aerosols, and ventilation matters. Masking and avoiding indoor crowding help reduce your risk.”

Also in our favor: The vaccines we have can be tweaked pretty quickly to take aim at Omicron if needed. “We may find that the current vaccines protect you pretty well, just like they have with the other variants. If not, I think within 100 days, the vaccine makers could get a fair number of updated doses targeting Omicron out to the public.”

And new treatments are on the way, including antiviral pills. “They appear very promising. And if you just start adding it all together, it's starting to look more and more manageable.”

But preventing a COVID infection is much better than needing to treat one, Sweat said. And on that front, there’s time to take action as we face the threat of Omicron. “I would stress boosters. If people haven't been boosted and they're eligible or haven't been vaccinated, now's a good time to do it,” Sweat said.

Even if Omicron doesn’t cause major disruptions, this is a winter to watch. “The virus has been following a very similar pattern, almost identical to last year. And if history were to play out the same way, we would expect to see another COVID wave in the new year. So you've got that force. That's been a big worry all along. Now, Omicron is another variable in the mix.”

Sweat said now’s the time to be a little more cautious. “I wouldn't panic. I'd probably continue to live my life, but you might want to think twice about going into a crowded bar without a mask on. And I'd watch for increases in cases. When you benefit the most from masking and distancing is when the virus surges and the number of cases is climbing.”

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