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New COVID-19 variant omicron concerns health experts

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

On Friday, the World Health Organization issued a worrying statement about yet another coronavirus variant, dubbed omicron. It's described as a variant of concern due to the fact that it has many mutations. As of this morning, we don't know of any confirmed cases in the U.S., but New York Governor Kathy Hochul has declared a state of emergency ahead of any cases being identified there. And cases of the variant, first identified in Botswana, as well as several countries in southern Africa, have also been confirmed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the U.K., Israel and Hong Kong. Over a dozen cases were confirmed in the Netherlands on Friday.

We're joined now by Dr. Virginia Caine, infectious disease expert and director of the Marion County Public Health Department in Indianapolis. Hello.

VIRGINIA CAINE: Hi. How are you?

SNELL: I'm well, thanks. Thanks for being here. Given everything that we've seen with the delta variant, people are understandably worried about the new one. So I want to start by asking, are you concerned about it, and if so, why?

CAINE: Well, I think definitely I'm concerned. You know, if there is a transmissibility advantage to this new variant, it likely has already spread undetected to a lot of other countries, as well as the United States. And there are three critical factors that we kind of look at to see whether we should be concerned about a new variant. And I think is what is the transmissibility of the virus? Can it cause severe disease? But more importantly, what is its impact on our vaccine effectiveness that we currently have and even on any therapeutics, antiviral medications that may be related to the coronavirus? And because they've been able to detect 30 or more mutations noted on that primary S spike protein receptor, I think we have to be concerned.

SNELL: Well, when can we expect to know that information, whether or not the vaccines we have are effective against this variant?

CAINE: I think it's going to take us, unfortunately, probably some weeks. You know, we have all of our state and federal laboratories. They are sending and doing the genetic sequencing of all the viruses that are coming in the country. But even once we identify a strain in the country, it's - you're going to have to go back to the lab and determine based on the vaccines that we have and even some of the newer antiviral medications that are coming on the market. That may take a few weeks in order for us to determine its real impact and effectiveness on our vaccines and antivirals.

SNELL: Well, this isn't the first time that we are coping with a variant. What have we learned from delta about how to cope with this? Are there any useful takeaways that we could apply in this case?

CAINE: I think we learned a lot from the delta variant in terms of how contagious - that virus can transmit and spread infection at a much higher rate than we saw with our novel original strain back in April of 2019. And I think the takeaways was - is that No. 1, how critical - vaccines may be the most important critical tool in order to prevent life-threatening illnesses and hospitalizations related to the vaccine, so get that vaccine. But we've learned some additional steps, and that is how social distancing, wearing masks, especially in indoor settings, can make a huge difference, along with regular sanitation disinfecting procedures that we can put in place in our businesses, in our homes, etc.

SNELL: I'm glad that you mentioned masking because I'm currently in Washington, D.C., and the mayor here announced a rollback of the city's indoor mask mandate last week. Are mask mandates something that state and local governments are going to have to reconsider again?

CAINE: I think they're going to definitely have to revisit this, and it's going to be a lot based on what your local vaccination rate is for the people in your communities. So if you're having a much higher vaccination rate - which I think in most of our states, the highest vaccination rates we've been able to achieve is around about 73 to 75% - and as this virus has become more contagious, we have to have a higher herd immunity percentage. So before, where we thought, wow, maybe we can get away with 75 or 80% herd immunity, it looks like it's going to have to be as much as 85 to 90% of our population is going to need to be vaccinated. And that's just based on the delta variant. We don't know what the status may be with this new virus - able to detect over 30 or more mutations related to it. So definitely, I think a lot of scientific officials, leaders in their communities are going to have to revisit a mask mandate.

SNELL: That's Dr. Virginia Caine. She's professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, infectious diseases division. Thank you so much.

CAINE: Hey, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.