Immunologist 'cautiously optimistic' about omicron COVID-19 variant

Expert says what is already known about coronaviruses can help combat new variant
Scientist looking through microscope
Photo credit Niphon Khiawprommas/Getty Images
By , KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — There is still a lot experts don't know about the recently discovered coronavirus variant, omicron. The variant was identified just days ago in South Africa, and there are no known cases in the U.S. yet.

While it could be only a matter of time, one local expert told KYW Newsradio he's "cautiously optimistic."

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Dr. Scott Dessain, a professor and immunologist at Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, said while knowledge is still sparse concerning the omicron variant, we still know a lot about coronaviruses.

"The main point is that the omicron variant has a lot of mutations, and it appears to have an ability to spread, so we're going to need to become familiar with how this behaves, how risky it is and how we can best counteract it," he explained.

Dessain said a new vaccine could be required if current vaccines are proven to be less effective against omicron. it could require a new vaccine. If so, however, that's something that could be easily developed in a couple of weeks.

"One of the advantages of the mRNA vaccines is that they can be quickly adapted to meet threats such as omicron may be providing," he said, "as well as to different variants that may come in the future."

According to Dessain, we need a better test that can determine which COVID-19 variant a person may be carrying. He said he's working on that.

"In my lab, we've been working on an antibody that can be used for that and can be easily incorporated into any of the existing [tests] that basically allow you to diagnose COVID infections within 15 minutes," he shared.

"Omicron is teaching us that it's not just a matter of diagnosing whether you have a COVID infection, but we really need to know which variant you have because we're going to treat you differently on the basis of which variant you have. The hospitals are full of delta infections right now, but if omicron comes in, there's a possibility that it might be able to spread among people who have already been vaccinated and that means it's a completely different risk."

Despite speculation over its transmissibility, the World Health Organization has advised against any overreaction before omicron is thoroughly studied.

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