Omicron variant raises new questions for COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness

The COVID-19 vaccine should still be effective in protecting from serious illness.
The COVID-19 vaccine should still be effective in protecting from serious illness. Photo credit Getty Images
By , KCBS Radio

The new omicron variant has rushed to the forefront of everyone's mind this week, with the first confirmed case in the United States announced on Wednesday morning.

The confirmed case came from a person who was fully vaccinated and only presented mild symptoms, according to reports. With rising concern over the new variant, it's unclear how vaccines will hold up against the mutation.

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“We can't estimate yet exactly how the omicron variant will affect protection against infection,” said Dr. David Martinez, an immunologist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on KCBS Radio's "Ask an Expert" with Holly Quan and Matt Bigler.

What is known is that even if someone becomes infected with any variant is that they are largely protected from severe disease, so omicron will not make much of a difference in that respect, said Martinez.

While protection levels can vary depending on the type of vaccine, all still protect against serious illness. Although Moderna and Pfizer have been noted to outrank Johnson & Johnson in terms of effectiveness, it's now thought that the Johnson & Johnson version might outlast the others.

"Over time it appears to have a 'slow burn level of immune responses,'" said Martinez. Essentially, even though the initial immune response is not at the same level as Moderna and Pfizer, over time they seem to go down, while Johnson & Johnson seems to have a relatively stable antibody response, he said. It's doing remarkably well, he said, "in terms of durability," some eight months out.

For people who have already gotten their series of Moderna or Pfizer vaccination, it would be totally fine to then get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well, said Martinez.

That hybrid of durability is being studies now, he said, but scientists still don't have an exact answer yet. Individuals who have contracted COVID-19 and then gotten fully vaccinated are most likely the best off in terms of immune response durability, he said.

But ultimately, "no one really has the answers for the long-term," said Martinez.

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