How severe is omicron? Expert says variant's 50 mutations could be its downfall

Based on preliminary data, experts say omicron does not appear to be more severe than delta, or other previous variants.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Preliminary data: Omicron likely not more severe than delta
Jim Dolan has more on the omicron variant and what preliminary data suggests about the potency of the new strain.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Preliminary data out of South Africa is giving the world insight into how strong omicron really is.

The South African Medical Research Council just reported this variant may cause less severe cases of COVID-19.

"Unvaccinated people in South Africa are going to the hospital, but they are not suffering a severe disease. They are not requiring oxygen. Their hospitals stay is about a third as long as it was with delta," said Dr. Warner Greene, MD, PhD - Gladstone Institutes, Senior Investigator and Virologist.

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Omicron has 50 mutations and 32 of those are in the spike protein. Those mutations in the spike protein are making this new variant more transmissible than any other variant.

Dr. Greene is a senior investigator and virologist for the Gladstone Institutes. He believes all those mutations could also be its downfall.

"It's possible with this virus that it may be attenuated. It has enough mutations that it doesn't cause as much disease. That would be wonderful, but let me stress we don't know that yet," said Dr. Greene.

Scientists across the world are collaborating to understand if Omicron has the ability to evade antibodies.

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Bay Area experts are concerned we might be entering a "twindemic" with cases of the omicron variant increasing with the flu season.

"It looks like it is not more severe than the delta variant and previous variants," said Dr. Nevan Krogan, Director of the Quantitative Bioscience Institute, and added, "The goal of the virus is to be able to transmit from host to host. The virus doesn't want to kill its host. The virus wants to remain alive. How does it do that? Well by becoming more transmissible."

The QBI lab broke down omicron and found how the virus is staying alive.

"We think that this virus is evolving to transmit every time better in humans and that is why it has accumulated all these mutations in the spike protein," said Dr. Lorena Zuliani Álvarez, Senior Scientist for the Quantitative Bioscience Institute.

As more data is collected, Dr. Greene believes there's an encouraging possibility.

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"We might end up handling it like the flu. You might even get the flu shot and the coronavirus shot in the same vaccine," said Dr. Greene.

Experts believe vaccination continues to be the best way to stop this virus from mutating.

"There was an event in Norway where there were over 100 individuals at this event and the majority if not all of them were vaccinated. 60 of these people were infected with omicron. So vaccinated people can definitely get re-infected or infected. The very good news is that those 60 individuals showed mild or no symptoms," said Dr. Krogan.

Experts are waiting to receive on more definitive data on the omicron variant in the next two weeks.