Questions emerge about Omicron variant, but experts say don’t panic

While the variant is cause for concern, experts still believe vaccines will be effective against it.

SAN ANTONIO – The world is on edge as people wonder what the Omicron COVID strain will bring.

President Biden says we should be concerned, not panicked.

“This virus is basically evolving to try and infect more people,” Dr. Jason Bowling, an epidemiologist with University Health said.

The latest strain, Omicron, is being labeled as “a variant of concern” by the WHO and CDC.

Metro Health said in a statement:

While the Omicron is a “variant of concern,” no cases of this variant have been detected in the U.S. to date. We fully expect to see some cases soon.

Metro Health will continue to monitor the situation. It will take 2-4 weeks to begin to know how serious a threat this is. Early reports indicate the symptoms have been mild. According to a recent report, the Covid symptoms linked to the new Omicron variant have been described as “extremely mild” by the South African doctor who first raised the alarm over the new strain.

While the strength of vaccination against Omicron isn’t known, it is still likely to be at least somewhat protective.

More than 1 in 3 San Antonians are not fully vaccinated. If you have not been vaccinated, please get vaccinated and/or get your booster shot. A decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate doesn’t just affect you—it affects all those around you.

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District

Dr. Bowling says the severity of this variant is a big question mark, there are conflicting reports.

“One from a provider that said she only saw mild cases, a couple of mild cases, no one who went to the hospital. I saw another report that said there were some moderate to severe cases,” Dr. Bowling said.

Looking at preliminary data from South Africa, the Omicron variant is very transmissible.

“The number of cases in South Africa really increased pretty rapidly,” he explained.

Epidemiologist Cherise Rohr Allegrini says when looking at the transmission rate, the vaccination rate of South Africa compared to San Antonio also needs to be a part of this conversation.

“South Africa has also very low vaccination rate, where you’re more likely to see a new variant occur because you don’t have a vaccination to slow transmission,” Allegrini said.

For Dr. Bowling, the area of concern with Omicron is in the spike protein of the virus, the most studied area.

He made the analogy, the spike protein is a key, treatments like monoclonal antibodies and vaccines are blocking that key from entering the lock which is our cells.

If it gets into the cell, that’s what starts the infection process.

“Basically, it’s changing its key so it can work around our treatments and still infect cells,” Dr. Bowling said. “So things that we’ve been using to try and block it from entering the door, so to speak. It’s trying to work its way around by creating a new key.”

Both experts say vaccinations are still the greatest defense we have against the Omicron variant. While the efficacy could potentially be lower, it’ll still offer protection.

Local pharmacies as well as Metro Health continue to offer the COVID vaccine and booster shots.

About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Joe Arredondo is a photojournalist at KSAT 12.