Despite there being little information about the new COVID-19 variant, USC students should not be overly concerned about Omicron, says Dr. Jeffrey D. Klausner, an infectious disease specialist at USC’s COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center.
The new variant was detected in South Africa on Nov. 26 according to the World Health Organization. Cases have since been reported in over 23 countries, and the first case in the U.S. was detected in California Wednesday.
Dr. Klausner’s reduced concern for the new variant is due to USC’s high rate of vaccination among students. Over 97% of USC students are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from USC’s COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center. Covid vaccines, which Klausner believes will still protect against the Omicron variant, are said to reduce the likelihood that people develop severe symptoms if they are infected with the virus.
Klausner said there are also several ways people can try to lower their risk of Omicron infection. For example, if students get monoclonal antibodies or receive the flu vaccine, they’ll have a much lower risk of being severely ill or being hospitalized.
Although Klausner is not too concerned about how Omicron could be different from other Covid-19 variants, those in the medical field still have many unanswered questions about the strain.
“We are waiting to see if it is more transmissible. Does it cause more severe disease, and will our vaccines stand up to it?” said Dr. Neha Nanda, an infectious disease specialist at Keck Medicine of USC.
So far, researchers have discovered that Omicron is unique from previous variants because it has more mutations in the spike protein: Omicron has 26 unique spike mutations, whereas the Delta variant had 10 spike variants. Previous variants have from four to eight spike mutant mutations.
Omicron also has multiple mutations in the receptor-binding domain, Klausner said, which is used to enter the lock of the cell of the spike protein. This functions like a “key” and a human cell are like a “lock on a door.”
“When there are changes in the shape of the key, sometimes those changes can make the virus easier to enter that lock in the cell, whereas sometimes it can make it harder to enter that lock in the cell,” Klausner said. “There’s a concern that the mutations in this virus could make it easier for the virus to enter the cell, which could result in it being easier to spread.”
Dr. Sarah Van Orman, Chief Medical Officer for USC Student Health did not have any new advice for students regarding protection from the Omicron variant.
“What I recommend for people is the same right now, the same advice we always had,” Van Orman said.
She reminded the USC Community to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots as soon as they’re eligible, comply with COVID testing, keep masking indoors, and make sure to isolate and get tested if students are experiencing any symptoms.