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Omicron: 'Time will tell' as we learn more about transmissibility and risk, doctor explains

In this article:
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Dr. Shikha Jain, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the latest about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Video Transcript

- Stocks remain deep in the red here over concerns about Omicron, that new COVID-19 variant, and what it might do to our economic recovery. The Dow down more than 500 points. It has spent most of the day there, especially after Fed Chair, Jay Powell, told lawmakers that they might actually speed up their taper of those monthly bond buying purchases, because now, they believe inflation is not transitory, and could stick around for a while.

Do want to make note that Apple, by the way, not part of the sell off. In fact, it's one of the few Dow stocks in the green. And it's actually in record territory right now. All right. Let's pivot back now to Omicron, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Because some vaccine makers are weighing in on the variant, and they now seem to agree that while we may see more breakthrough cases in vaccinated people, they're unlikely to become severely ill from the variant.

Joining us now is Dr. Shikha Jain, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago. Dr. Jain, good to have you on the show again. There's a lot we don't know, admittedly, about the variant. But I want to talk about what we do know. Is this new variant more easily transmissible, or responsible for more severe illnesses than previous variants, like the Delta variant?

SHIKHA JAIN: Yeah, thanks for having me back on. So I will say that what we know now is that it seems like Omicron may be more transmissible just from what we're seeing across what's happening in South Africa, and seeing what's happening in some other countries at this point. So there is concern that it may be a little bit more transmissible. It doesn't seem at this point, to cause more severe illness.

But again, one thing you need to remember is, a lot of the early cases we're finding right now are in younger people. And typically, younger people don't get as sick from COVID-19, as what we've seen over the last two years. So I think time will tell.

We'll know more over the next few weeks, as we see how transmissible it is, and as we see more people. We know that hospitalizations typically lag after people get infected. So we'll probably see in the next couple of weeks whether it is indeed causing more or less symptoms for people who contract it.

- And then Dr. Jain, in the epicenter of South Africa, we're learning that many of those infected are very, very young children, toddlers, two years, and younger. Is that different from some of the other strains that we've seen, Delta, Mu, and the like? And if so, is that something that parents need to be worried about?

SHIKHA JAIN: You know, I'm a parent myself. I have three young children. One just got her second vaccine this past weekend. So I will say, I have two children who are not old enough to get vaccinated yet. And it is very different from what we're seeing from the earlier strains of COVID-19.

This one does seem to be impacting those young kids, which we were not seeing as often with the earlier strains. So this is something where we need to make sure our kids are being diligent and wearing their masks. We need to go back to social distancing if we weren't. Holidays are coming up we need to make sure we're taking extra precautions.

And I know we've all had COVID fatigue. We're all feeling tired. We're in year two of this pandemic. But we need to double down, and really protect our children, and protect our unvaccinated as much as we can at this point.

- Dr. Jain, what about the boosters? Because now, I feel like there is a monkey wrench here, because of Omicron. We've got Moderna's CEO coming out and saying that their vaccine on the market now may not be as effective against Omicron. They said they need more data. Pfizer's CEO is saying that their vaccine could be less potent against Omicron. So should folks who are eligible for the booster wait to see if these companies are going to tweak the vaccine before getting that third shot?

SHIKHA JAIN: Absolutely not. Everybody should be getting their booster if they're eligible for the booster right now. And the reason for that is several things. So with this vaccine, we were seeing such high rates of efficacy at the beginning, up in the 90s, s which is unheard of for most vaccines. Now, our numbers and percentages may be dropping a little bit with these new variants. But we're still hopeful that this vaccine is going to be very effective against Omicron.

It is possible in the future as more variants continue to arise, that we may need to have modified boosters, just like we do with the flu shot every year, where the flu shot is trying to target against different strains that occur every year. That does not mean you should be delaying getting your booster, because you need to get that surge in antibodies, and get that added protection, especially as we have Delta surging across the country, and Omicron is likely already here. And we need to get you protected as quickly as we can. And these vaccines are likely going to be still effective to some degree against the Omicron variant.

- Now, Dr. Jain, you just answered my question, because I'm scheduled to get my booster tomorrow. So I think the messaging from you is, that go and get it. Don't wait, even though the thought of having to get a second booster down the road is not something that's appealing to me. But also want to touch on something else you said, which is that the virus is already likely here.

Dr. Fauci says there are no cases that have been reported yet. And I'm wondering, why are we so slow to detect any of these cases? Is it that we're just not testing as quickly for this particular variant as other countries are?

SHIKHA JAIN: I think there's a lot of reasons why we might be a little bit behind, and why I think it's already here. I give the analogy of if you find an ant in the bedroom, that doesn't necessarily mean the whole anthill is actually in your bedroom. It could be coming from the kitchen, or a crumb somewhere else. So I say that the virus is likely already here, because again, we just haven't detected it yet.

And we already know that it was actually found in the Netherlands now before it was even seen in South Africa. We just didn't hear about it until just now, because they just realized it. So I think that part of the challenge here is maybe we're not testing as much. Maybe some of these labs out there don't have the ability to get that turnaround time as quickly. And to be perfectly honest, some of these labs may not even have the resources to test for all of these variants.

And this country has been doing a great job of pushing out the vaccines, and trying to get people tested. But as I said, I can feel it in my clinics. I can feel it in the community. People are getting tired. We're hearing people who are having symptoms who are now not even going to get tested, because they're just blowing it off as a cold or the flu.

I want to reemphasize to people out there, we may feel like we're over with this pandemic, and COVID. It is not over with us. And we are going to continue to see our numbers go up unless we continue to double down on our efforts, and mask indoors, social distance, and plan to have really good ventilation any time we're socializing with others.

- Doctor, real quick in the 30 seconds I have left, what about mixing boosters. Can you have the Pfizer vaccine and get a Moderna booster? Does it matter?

SHIKHA JAIN: You absolutely can. You can mix and match your boosters. If you had Pfizer, you can get Moderna. If you had Moderna, you can get Pfizer. If you had Johnson & Johnson, you can get either Pfizer or Moderna. Just get a booster as soon as you can.

- All right. Great advice. Doctor, thanks so much for joining.