Omicron basics: Mayo Clinic expert on severity, vaccine resilience

On Wednesday, Dr. Greg Poland, a Mayo Clinic vaccine and epidemiology expert, and founder and director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group broke down what doctors know about the latest omicron COVID-19 variant and how effective current vaccines are against it.

Is omicron more dangerous or contagious than previous strains of COVID-19 including the delta variant?

"Omicron, and these are early data, subject to change, is about two to six times more infectious than Delta," Dr. Poland said. "Early data suggests increased transmissibility but perhaps less severity."

Meaning, it’s likely that the omicron variant is more contagious, but will not result in as many deaths or hospitalizations as delta.

"You have a very transmissible virus that causes a lot of disease and death, Delta, and you have a hyper transmissible virus, like omicron, that appears to cause much less in the way of death and hospitalization and sickness," Dr. Poland said.

Will current COVID-19 vaccines protect people against the omicron variant?

Dr. Poland says early indicators are, yes, the current COVID-19 vaccines offer some protection from the Omicron variant.

On Wednesday Pfizer announced early lab testing indicates their booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine is effective in fighting against omicron. Dr. Poland recommends people get a booster shot to increase the number of antibodies they have to fight off infection. People who have not received a dose of the vaccine in the last six months are lacking the antibodies they need to prevent infection from omicron. A booster brings their antibody levels back up to a level that can prevent infection.

"The only thing we can do right now is to get a booster and the early preliminary evidence suggests that that works," Dr. Poland said.

Will COVID-19 continue to mutate creating new variants?

"Let me make this clear, we can no longer eradicate this virus and this disease. Your great, great, great-grandchildren will be getting immunized against this disease," Dr. Poland said.

Dr. Poland says because the virus can be carried  by animals it will continue to live in those populations, even if humans are not spreading the virus, and will continue to mutate within those animal populations, creating versions that are spreadable to humans.

Dr. Poland compared what will happen with COVID-19 to what we experience with the flu. In 1918 the flu sparked a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of people. Today, we still vaccinate against the flu, and mutations of that deadly flu strain, even if strains currently circulating aren’t as deadly.