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Coronavirus: ‘We know that new variants will crop up,’ doctor says

Emergency medicine physician Dr. Hiral Tipirneni joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss Omicron hospitalizations, COVID-19 vaccines, as well as two cases of a subvariant of Omicron, called BA.2, confirmed in Washington, D.C.

Video Transcript

EMILY MCCORMICK: Let's bring in our next guest for more on this topic. Dr. Hiral Tipirneni is an emergency medicine physician based in Arizona. Thank you so much for joining us.

As we continue to hear about the surge in cases due to Omicron, what have conditions been like on the ground where you are?

HIRAL TIPIRNENI: Well, thank you for having me. And, you know, what Anjalee said is accurate here on the ground as well. We're seeing that we're probably going to be coming down from that surge over the next few weeks, as we've seen that Omicron peaking in other parts of the country. It's important, though, that we don't take anything for granted and we don't make any hard and fast assumptions, because, as we know, we've certainly been surprised before.

But, you know, the numbers are still large. As we know, transmission is much greater with Omicron. So even though the virulence is less, the numbers of folks who have been infected are much greater. And, therefore, that's why that percentage of folks that were hospitalized was so much greater as well.

So I don't want anyone to think we can just ease up on the precautions. It's still time to be very vigilant. But we do think that we see a light at the end of the tunnel. And I believe Dr. Fauci confirmed that he thought, for the country as a whole, that we would see those numbers really kind of coming down after that first week of February.

So we're hopeful on the ground as well. But, again, as I think he mentioned, we need to be vigilant. We need to maintain all the protective defenses that we know work against this virus, which means vaccinations, which means masking in indoor public spaces, making sure that we're being mindful of those vulnerable populations in our community, making sure we're testing frequently, especially now that the government has put out that website for free tests for every household, and also [AUDIO OUT] now that we have these therapies. So there's a lot of things in our arsenal that we have to still continue to use.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You talk about light at the end of the tunnel. And just as the light goes on, two cases, Washington state, of this new-- call it, what-- subvariant, BA.2, of Omicron. What do we know, and what's the future regarding this subvariant?

HIRAL TIPIRNENI: Yeah, you're absolutely right, and that's why we can't really let up. We can certainly be hopeful. And we know much progress has been made. But, as you mentioned, in Washington state, they have identified another variant, BA.2, appears to have a difference from the original Omicron with a mutation on the spike protein.

And, you know, this is not something that we haven't anticipated. We have. We know that new variants will crop up. That's why it's so important to continue to work on vaccinating not just our nation but all around the globe. Because as long as there are hosts for this virus, as long as there are opportunities for it to replicate in a rapid fashion, variants will continue to come up.

So we are looking at this, trying to find out, is it more virulent or less so? The other thing is, you know, what we're concerned about is, is it escaping our immune system? For those folks who are vaccinated and have antibodies against the coronavirus, is this new variant escaping that level of immunity? Is it escaping those antibodies and that surveillance? And that, of course, is incredibly critical, because if we end up with a variant that completely evades that vaccinated immune system, essentially that would put us back at square one.

I'm not saying that's where we are. I'm just saying that's why it's so important that we continue to vaccinate and protect and boost. And now we know that the full state of vaccination includes a booster to be fully vaccinated.

EMILY MCCORMICK: Well, and, to that point, Pfizer and BioNTech said earlier today that they've begun a clinical trial to test an Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine. Are we going to get this in time to address the worst of this current outbreak? And even if not, do you see this still playing a role in addressing future variants?

HIRAL TIPIRNENI: Yeah, absolutely. I think-- I imagine any of the progress that we're making we will be able to apply and extrapolate from, if not in this acute surge, then certainly in the future. All of this research is incredibly vital. And it has been very meaningful, as we know. Where we are now is an amazing really testament to science, with the development of the vaccines, of therapies, of other interventions, monoclonal antibodies, all of those things.

So, to your question specifically, it sounds like they may not have this specific version of a vaccine maybe until after March. A lot of it depends on having an ability to test and make sure that they can perform these trials to make sure they can confirm safety and efficacy. So that is a big concern.

But, you know, I think what we know is that our current methods have to continue to stay in play. We have to continue to be vigilant. And I think that we're continuing to gain more tools in our arsenal with this additional vaccine, with more therapies. All of these things are additional tools. But what we know work, vaccines, boosting, wearing masks in indoor public places, frequent testing, and making sure that we're being protective of all those who are vulnerable in our communities.

We continue to do that, we will, I think, continue to see progress being made and hopefully find our way out of this surge and into a more tolerable state. As Anjalee mentioned, we lost 2,000 Americans yesterday, and that's not acceptable.

ADAM SHAPIRO: So I'm going to steal a headline from the "New York Times." What does it mean to be done with COVID? I'm curious, for you, what does it mean to be done with COVID?

HIRAL TIPIRNENI: Yeah, you know, I think it differs for a lot of people. And I think what is important is that we never think of it as just a personal decision. We have to realize that this is something that impacts our entire community. So it's not something where I, as an individual, can just say, well, I'm done. You know, I'm just going to-- I'm confident that I'm not going to get it, and I'm just going to go about my merry way. That's not OK to say.

We live in a community, in a country where there's this social contract that we look out for each other. And we know what the consequences are when we don't. And so it's really important. And as health care workers, all we ask for is that everybody do their part-- everybody who can get vaccinated gets vaccinated. Everybody who is vulnerable, please be mindful of those folks in your community. Wear masks indoors.

And, you know, you can still live your life. You can go and do the things that you want to do to, you know, a relatively different degree, but still enjoy yourself. And, remember it's not just about you. It's about your family, your community, your entire neighborhood and making sure that everybody is able to reclaim some part of their regular or normal life. So it's not a solo decision, and it's something that we should be mindful and conduct ourselves knowing that our entire community is counting on us.

EMILY MCCORMICK: All right. Dr. Hiral Tipirneni is an Arizona-based emergency medicine physician. And we thank you so much for your time this afternoon.