The newly-discovered coronavirus variant, Omicron, has left scientists racing to understand what this means for the pandemic and for those who are still too young to be vaccinated. The World Health Organization (WHO) designated it a variant of concern, more than 15 states have confirmed cases and due to its novelty, information is still limited.
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The variant was first discovered when researchers in South Africa found more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, a component on the surface of the virus that allows it to attach to human cells and enter the body. Because of this, the variant has potential to make the virus more transmissible than previous variants, which worries medical experts.
“A variant that spreads more easily is a reason to be concerned even if it’s not more virulent than past variants,” Dr. Danielle Zerr, Professor and Division Chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Seattle Children’s tells SheKnows . “This is because the more people who are infected, the more people who will have severe illness and need to be hospitalized.”
Since information is limited and only a handful of cases have been confirmed in the United States, it’s difficult to tell what sort of impact this virus will have. Cases are soaring in southern Africa which has prompted world leaders to take precautions. Countries like Israel, Japan and Morocco are barring foreign travelers from entering, and President Biden announced last week that anyone traveling into the United States would need proof of a negative COVID-19 test 24-hours before their departure.
“What is still unclear is the difference in symptoms that are associated with infection with Omicron,” Dr. Kate E. Broderick, Senior Vice President of Research and Development at INOVIO tells SheKnows. “Medical teams all over the globe will be assessing the symptoms or signs of illness that are associated with individuals that contract Omicron. This will help us better understand the full impact that Omicron will have as it spreads around the globe on both children and adults.”
Research is still being done to track the course of the Omicron variant, but Dr. Zerr says early reports indicate a significant increase in hospitalization rates for Covid-19 in young children. “It will be important to see the data over time to determine if this finding persists,” she said.
The reasoning behind why children might be more susceptible to this variant is due to lower vaccination rates than adults. The FDA gave the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine emergency authorization to use in children ages 5 to 15 years in late October, almost one year after it gave approval to adults 18 and older. The most recent estimates show that roughly 10 percent of all children in the United States have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, compared to Americans aged 18 and older in the same category.
“ For those who are too young to be vaccinated, we need to focus on utilizing those measures that we know work, like masking, physical distancing, testing and isolating when ill,” Dr. Zerr said.
In short, no. According to WHO , early evidence suggests that people who contracted Covid-19 could be reinfected more easily with Omicron, in comparison to previous variants. Information is limited at this time, but Pfizer, the makers behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine said according to a recent lab study, their booster dose is effective in fighting the variant.
It’s very likely. We’ve already seen several variants of Covid-19 and it’s only natural for the virus to mutate and change over time. Dr. Broderick says that this is what we’ve seen with the influenza virus and we need to be prepared to redesign vaccines so they can cover new variants as needed. “ One of the great things about DNA vaccine technology, the technology I work with at INOVIO, is how fast we can design our vaccines using the template of the virus and a computer program.”
As we slowly approach the two year mark of this pandemic, doctors are telling their patients to stay the course. Dr. Zerr recommends masking when around others outside your household, limiting contact with those who are unvaccinated, staying away from anyone who is sick and if able, get vaccinated as soon as possible.
And while vaccines have proven to be the key fighter in this pandemic, researchers are hopeful that new discoveries will help. Dr. Broderick says that we’ve all become experts about the importance of antibodies over the last two years, but in addition to the antibodies that are generated when we are vaccinated, with DNA being one of them, also induce another part of the immune system called T cells.
“T cells are so important right now as antibodies are very sensitive to changes in the virus,” she said. “Whereas T cells are much more resilient. With Omicron being quite different to anything that we’ve seen before, I think T cells are important in protecting us all from its impact.”
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