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With vaccines, there’s 'less reason to be freaked out' about new COVID-19 variant omicron

Despite a new COVID-19 variant, Jeffrey SoRelle with UT Southwestern thinks "we're much better prepared for something like this" because of widespread vaccine access for adults and children.
Keren Carrión
Despite a new COVID-19 variant, Jeffrey SoRelle with UT Southwestern thinks "we're much better prepared for something like this" because of widespread vaccine access for adults and children.

A new COVID-19 variant was identified in South Africa, called omicron. A pathologist from UT Southwestern explains what this means for North Texas.

The World Health Organization recently categorized a new COVID-19 variant, called omicron, as avariant of concern. This classification is given either because of an increase in transmissibility, an increase in disease severity or a decrease in vaccine or treatment effectiveness.

The first U.S. case of the COVID-19 omicron variant was identified on Wednesday in a person who traveled from South Africa.

Pathologists across the country, including UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, are monitoring the new variant’s trajectory closely.

Jeffrey SoRelle, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at the medical center , has tested for and tracked the virus in North Texas since the beginning of the pandemic. He said the most significant thing about o micron is the number of mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that’s targeted by vaccines and people’s immune responses.

“The previous variants had around six to eight mutations in the spike protein, and that was considered to be higher than normal,” SoRelle said. “This one has over 30.”

He said it’s notable because the amount of mutations jumped to a much higher number. This also could mean o micron COVID-19 is more transmissible than other variants, but SoRelle said there’s not a lot of data on other factors such as illness severity or hospitalization.

“There’s some aspects of the characteristics of the virus that are concerning, but as the virus adapts, so does our immune system,” he said. “It's also very good at adapting and recognizing multiple things that look similar and protecting us.”

He said with wider access to COVID-19 vaccines for kids and adults, along with booster shots approved for the general population, there’s “less reason to be freaked out” by a new variant.

“I think it’s good to keep some perspective,” SoRelle said. The last two surges caused by the delta variant were bad, but “the worst was in January, after the holidays when we didn’t have vaccines.”

Even with previous immune resistant strains, like b eta, SoRelle said vaccines were still effective.

SoRelle said it’s going to take time to collect data on how o micron might affect people. Scientists from South Africa first reported o micron to the World Health Organization on Nov . 24, and cases of the variant arebeing identified in multiple provinces around the country.

Just because it might spread more quickly, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more severe, cautioned SoRelle. It took a few months to determine how the delta variant might affect people when it started appearing in the United States earlier this year.

“That's what's hard for people—the unknown,” he said. “And waiting to find that information out.”

While there are no reported cases of o micron in Texas yet, SoRelle said it’s a matter of time.

“We've seen every variant of concern that's come up here in Dallas, Texas, just at UT Southwestern, and we're only sampling our patients at our hospital,” he said. “I would say we're likely to see it before Christmas time.”

In the meantime, he and other medical officials at UT Southwestern will use virus sequencing techniques and rapid PCR tests to identify o micron and any other variants.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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Elena Rivera