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COVID: 'The big concern is Delta — Omicron is not even here yet,' epidemiologist says

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Dr. Suzanne Judd, epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the recently discovered COVID-19 variant and urge Americans to get a booster shot as cold weather approaches.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: The new omicron variant causing a lot of concern for investors, particularly on Friday. Some of those concerns, at least in the market, are abating today, even as public health officials are scrambling to try and figure out the implications of this new variant. Suzanne Judd is joining us now. She's a doctor and epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Dr. Judd, thank you so much for being here. I know it's early and there's a lot that we don't know. Given what we do know at this point, what's your level of concern? And kind of, what are the key things you're going to be looking for, as we try to get more information?

SUZANNE JUDD: So, what we're hearing from South Africa is that this particular variant has the ability to re-infect people that were previously sick with COVID and that it can infect people more quickly at a higher rate who've been vaccinated. That's something that typically triggers our public health systems because it means that it's mutated to a point that the immunity we have won't work as well as it has in the past.

So things like restricting flights, new monitoring of genetic testing across the world, those are the types of public health systems that get triggered. It doesn't necessarily mean that this is going to be as bad as it was in the past. It's just something we have to monitor. The key things we're looking at now we're going to be looking at how quickly it spreads in places outside of Southern Africa. We're going to be looking at the genetic makeup of the various different types of COVID that we see in different countries. And we'll probably start looking at whether or not this particular version is more likely to put people in the hospital and potentially lead to death than other variants.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Hey, Dr. Judd, Brian Cheung here. Now, in addition to just the characteristics and the morality and the severity of this, we also have questions about how the vaccines would interact with this. We know that was a big question with delta it appeared to be the case that you would still be able to be protected from delta with those vaccines that had already been put out there. Is there anything that you're seeing? And I know, again, it is still early, but anything that you're seeing in omicron that would tell you about how the vaccines that we already have right now as people are getting boosted would interact with this new variant?

SUZANNE JUDD: We just don't have great information. We have early indications from South Africa that seemed to say the vaccine is not as effective for omicron. And when we look at the DNA, the genetic structure of this variant, it does appear that it may not be as responsive to the vaccines that we currently have on the market. That's why you're hearing the vaccine companies are kind of scrambling to see if they need to update their booster or make a change.

It also means since the genetics of this one are slightly different, that the monoclonal antibody therapy may not work as well, because the antibodies that we currently have are really designed more for the older variants. So those are the things we're watching. Again, we don't know. It's still really early, but that's what public health scientists are looking into right now.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Dr. Judd, as a follow-up to that, should people be hesitant to get the booster right now if they want to wait on the sidelines and figure out if they should wait for another booster, something else that would better address omicron, if let's say, for example, there's further development? I was at the Costco getting my booster while this news was coming out. So I was a bit late to the party there, but some people might be thinking, eh, should I wait a little bit here?

SUZANNE JUDD: Absolutely not. In the United States, the number one concern is delta. Omicron is not even really here yet. The northern part of the US, the Midwest, the Mountain West are all battling a major delta outbreak. And honestly, that's the issue right here in the US right now. So those boosters are really important to manage what we currently have in the US. We just have to wait and see what happens with omicron. But again, it's not here right now. And we really need to face the issue that we have here.

BRIAN SOZZI: Doctor, I think Moderna over the weekend surprised a lot of folks by saying it could have a vaccine out by early next year to fight this new variant. Is that unrealistic, or is there something special about the mRNA platform that would allow Moderna to do this?

SUZANNE JUDD: The mRNA platform is much more flexible than traditional vaccine platforms. That's one of the reasons we are pretty excited about it in the public health community, because companies can pivot quite rapidly to make new boosters for new variants. So it is a unique platform that allows more rapid movement and pivoting.

JULIE HYMAN: And Dr. Judd, finally, omicron aside, what are your expectations for this winter in terms of the delta variant spread in the United States, especially given the fact that, you know, vaccine uptake in many states is still hovering at around half?

SUZANNE JUDD: Yeah, the outbreak we're seeing in the northeast and the midwest are really kind of alarming for what could happen in February and March in my part of the country, which is the southern part of the US. We continue to see these waves in the US where one region has a very high load, and then it kind of spreads to another region. And that's one of the reasons that we don't really ever stamp it out. It just continues to wave through different parts of the country. So that's my biggest concern that I'm watching, is that as the delta wave in the north starts to fall off, perhaps it'll move back down to the south again, where we do have slightly lower vaccination rates.

JULIE HYMAN: Dr. Judd, thank you so much for your perspective this morning. Suzanne Judd is an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Appreciate it.