Doctor keeping eye on Omicron variant

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 6:57 PM CST
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - The newest COVID-19 variant has not yet made its way to Northeast Arkansas, but doctors are already preparing for it.

Dr. Shane Speights of the NYIT School of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State said the new variant could be the most transmissible one yet, and it could pose a risk to those with immunity.

“Our immune system may not recognize this new variant if you get infected by it, whether you got vaccinated or infected naturally,” Speights said. “We do feel that the vaccine does still offer some protection in terms of reduced hospitalizations and reduced deaths, but it’s going to take us a few weeks to really find out what the details are about this variant.”

The vaccines work by targeting the spike protein that transmits the virus. However, with Omicron, those spike proteins have 31 mutations. Those mutations could keep our immune systems from identifying the proteins.

It isn’t all bad news, though.

Speights said the COVID-19 antiviral pills from Merck and Pfizer should be available to the public within the next 60 to 90 days. He said those pills will be the best defense against Omicron, as they target a different part of the virus. In the meantime, though, he said vaccines are still the best way to fight COVID-19.

Very little is known about the Omicron variant so far. It was first discovered Nov. 18 in South Africa, and was declared a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26. As of this writing, there are currently no known cases in the United States, but Speights said it’s only a matter of time.

When it does show up, doctors will be more prepared than for any variant so far. Speights said we aren’t in the same fight we were in before. Between vaccines, monoclonal antibody treatments, and the upcoming antiviral pills, we are much more equipped to fight COVID-19 than any other point in the pandemic.

“We are certainly in a completely different situation than we were this time last year,” Speights said.

It is not time to panic, but it is always important to be cautious. Mask wearing, social distancing, and getting vaccinated are still the best ways to avoid contracting COVID-19 and the Omicron variant.

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