What early evidence tells us about omicron, and how it may affect need for booster shots

The first case of COVID-19 from the omicron variant in the U.S. was in a person who had been vaccinated, but hadn’t received a booster. Dr. Fauci said it was a mild infection, and none of the traveler’s close contacts have tested positive. While many have said this was just a matter of time, it begs many questions. William Brangham has more with Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now let's return to the other major story of the day, the first case of the Omicron variant detected in the U.S., and the concerns over what may lie ahead.

    William Brangham is back with that.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, that first case in California was a person who'd been vaccinated, but hadn't received a booster shot. Dr. Fauci said it was a mild infection.

    Still, there are many questions over how Omicron will affect the U.S.

    Michael Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. And he joins me now.

    Michael Osterholm, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    So, Omicron is here. We always seemed to assume that it was going to be here sooner or later. But there are still a lot of things that we don't know about its contagiousness, its virulence, whether or not it can escape the protections provided by our vaccines.

    Among those questions, do those three stand out in equal importance to you?

    Dr. Michael Osterholm, University of Minnesota: I think they do.

    And I would add, under the seriousness, is the issue of, do they challenge our current monoclonal therapy? As you know, using the monoclonal antibodies has been a very important tool in reducing serious illness. So, it is about the vaccines. It is about the therapy. It's about, is it more infectious and will, in fact, this virus evade the protection that we already have from vaccines or from having had natural infection?

  • William Brangham:

    And do you have a sense as to when we're going to get answers to those questions?

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm:

    You know, I think it'll start to become clearer even in the next few days what's happening in terms of the transmissibility.

    We have already seen what appears to be widespread transmission in South Africa. And I think, as we look further, we're going to see, even in these countries where we now have individual cases, did we have substantial transmission?

    So, that — I'm convinced that we will know. And I'm concerned that the early evidence points out that this is highly infectious, and likely will knock Delta off the kind of you might call it viral hill in terms of the top of everything.

    I think the other thing, though, that we will also see very soon, is there, in fact, increase in serious illness? And as you may have been following in the last 12 to 24 hours, we're seeing an increasing number of hospitalizations occurring in the Johannesburg-Pretoria area, which is tied to Omicron.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if we have one case, we should assume there's obviously many cases here in the U.S.

    Given that, does it change anything about how we ought to be behaving as far as trying to curtail this virus?

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm:

    Well, I wouldn't say it changes, but it should reinforce the fact, please get vaccinated.

    We know from studies that were conducted earlier this year and the last part of last year in South Africa and South America, where the Beta and Gamma variants were very common. These were the ones that had those mutations that enhanced the immune evasion, but they weren't very infectious relative to the Alpha and Delta virus. So they, in a sense, got beat out.

    When we did those vaccine studies, we found that, in fact, the level of protection to prevent infection was very low. It did not prevent infection very well at all. But what it did do is, it actually prevented serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

    And so getting ready for this particular variant now in the United States, the most important thing we can do is get people vaccinated for the first time. And we have over 100 million people today who have now been vaccinated at least six months ago who are now in that period of waning immunity that we need to get boosters into.

    That alone would be a major reinforcement against the arrival of this particular variant.

  • William Brangham:

    On that booster question, we know that all three of the major vaccine manufacturers here say that they are researching potential Omicron-specific boosters.

    If someone has been vaccinated, but is considering whether they should get a booster, should they wait for an Omicron booster, or should they get the one that exists today?

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm:

    Absolutely do not wait. Get it as soon as possible.

    And the reason for that is, is that even if we do have Omicron-specific vaccines arrive, they won't be here for at least three-and-a-half to four months. On top of that, remember, availability will not be automatic. It will take weeks and even months of production to produce enough vaccines for everyone to get.

    So, in the meantime, in the next three-and-a-half to six months, this new variant could cause hell in this country. And so now is the time to get that reinforcing protection. Get the booster, get the first dose now with the vaccines we have, and at least know you have a much, much higher likelihood of not having a serious illness, a hospitalization or a death.

    And, to me, that is all — everything we're trying to do right now.

  • William Brangham:

    While we wait for some of these questions about Omicron to be answered, we, of course, have to recognize that we are still struggling with this other variant, with Delta.

    Certainly, in states like yours in the Upper Midwest, it is still a real serious problem. Why do you think we're still struggling against that variant?

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm:

    Well, in fact, if I could actually add to the very important point you just made, today was a really very sad day in this country in terms of what's happening with the Delta variant, in that the state of Vermont reported the single highest number of hospitalizations they have ever had throughout the entire pandemic.

    They also happen to be the leading state in this country in terms of level of vaccination, at over 78 percent fully vaccinated. And they're experiencing a largely unvaccinated population-driven situation. So, we have got to get people vaccinated now.

    Why we're seeing these surges from the Four Corners area up through the Central Plains into Minnesota across Northern — the Northern United States is just unclear to us. Why do surges start? Why do they stop? Why did the one start in the South in the middle of this past summer and then suddenly end? We don't know.

    What we do know is that the height of the surge, the impact it has can be tremendously minimized if we get people vaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael Osterholm, the director of CIDRAP, always good to see you. Thank you very much.

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm:

    Thank you. Good to see you. Bye.

Listen to this Segment