Doctor explains Omicron and the possibility of more COVID-19 variants

Dr. Michael Saag, University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the concern over the new COVID-19 variant.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Let's continue this discussion on the precautions we can all take with Dr. Michael Saag. He is the University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health. Thank you for joining us, doctor. What's the key takeaway do you think for all of us, as we catch our breath over the headlines of last week and where we stand right now?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah, I think we just need to tap the brakes a little bit and get into the new world of expectations of COVID. COVID is going to be with us for years to come. And we're going to see variants emerge. And we're going to go through this process several times, maybe many times in the future. So this is just the first-- actually, the third wave of this that we will be experiencing. And I think we just have to get used to that on one level.

On the other hand, we should celebrate the science. This is amazing that we're able to track an epidemic in real-time, get the news to the population so they can be prepared. As you just heard in your reporting, that there's already manufacturing processes underway to prepare for this variant. That's unheard of. Within days of recognition of a new variant, they're already working on a modified vaccine in case it's needed. This is something to celebrate in a backhanded way.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Help us to understand, those of us who are clearly not doctors or scientists, why is COVID going to be with us for a long, long time, whereas the influenza virus of 1918, it still with us, or has it gone?

MICHAEL SAAG: Well, in some form or fashion, it's still with us. And influenza is a little bit different in that it's an influenza virus, but it mutates in a different place. And it's guaranteed to change year to year as it goes through its cycle. Coronavirus is not quite the same, but it's similar. This coronavirus appears to go through populations, especially of the vulnerable. And in this case, nowadays, I mean the immune naive. That's people who have never been vaccinated, who have never had the infection in particular.

And so that's like tinder for a fire. It's cannon fodder. And so the virus, as soon as gets an opportunity, it's going to rummage right through that population. And it changes, it mutates as it goes. So far, I don't see any indication that this virus is going to extinguish itself, at least not in the next year or two. So I think we need to be prepared for that. What can we do? Get vaccinated. It's very simple. And when you need a booster--

ADAM SHAPIRO: And it's very simple, but there are millions of people in our country, let alone the rest of the world, that are saying, no, they won't. But let me ask you something about the way coronaviruses mutate because we've seen mutations perhaps more infecting than previous versions of the virus, but not necessarily more severe. Do these viruses, can they go either way? Can they mutate and be more severe, or do they tend to mutate and become less severe, especially for those who are not vaccinated?

MICHAEL SAAG: Yeah, it's possible either way. Typically, for one of these new variants to outgrow, it usually is more transmissible. So think about the virus as it has a mutation on the spike protein. That makes it more likely to adhere to a receptor if somebody gets exposed. So think about it like Velcro, that it sort of sticks a little bit better than the prior virus did. As far as virulence we want to call it, in terms of disease creating, the ability to cause illness, that's going to be highly variable.

But viruses mutating is what-- is not new. That's what they do. I've cut my teeth in HIV, and that virus mutates almost every single replication cycle. And there's a billion viruses produced a day inside someone. So this is something that virologists are used to seeing. That's why you see Dr. Fauci so, in my view, nimbly go through and expect what's about to happen. So he's a good voice to listen to as we go. Anybody who's worked in virology, this is kind of standard fare.

ADAM SHAPIRO: And I think many of us are grasping for any optimistic news we can get. There was the doctor from South Africa who said the cases that they've seen so far don't seem to be any more severe. How do we consider that so early into the understanding of this variant?

MICHAEL SAAG: Well, I'd like to think that's true. We're just going to need more information. But the details matter with those people who were vaccinated. Were they people who have had prior COVID before? So the real question here is especially among the unvaccinated, who we know, in the delta surge, were the ones who are going into the hospital at 11-fold more likely to go in the hospital and more likely to die, that's what we really need to keep our eye on, on this omicron variant.

ADAM SHAPIRO: And then, finally, does it make sense when you have a variant like this to stop-- we're still flying to South Africa. People from the United States can fly to South Africa. But people from South Africa, it's a different story. Does it make sense to close international borders when something like this rears its head?

MICHAEL SAAG: Well, I think it's a knee jerk kind of, well, let's shut it down till we learn more about it. At the end of the day, it's not going to work as a long-term strategy. Short-term, I can sympathize with policymakers who say, well, let's at least get this under control or at least put a pause on this long enough for us to figure out what's going on. And in the long run, though, closing borders or stopping travel isn't going to be sufficient to keep it out of the country.

ADAM SHAPIRO: It's good to see you again, doctor. And I hope you had a good Thanksgiving and wish you and your family the best this holiday season. Dr. Michael Saag is University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Dean for Global Health. When--