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UW Health discusses Omicron COVID variant in Wisconsin

Posted at 3:10 PM, Dec 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-06 16:10:20-05

GREEN BAY (NBC 26) — UW Health’s Dr. Jeff Pothof speaks with NBC 26's Nina Sparano about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has now been identified in Wisconsin.

Below is a partial transcript of the interview:

Nina Sparano: Now first we know that omicron is here now in Wisconsin that has been confirmed now what is the level of concern here that omicron has been detected in our state?

Dr. Pothof: I think omicron is something we need to be cautious about. You know there's still a lot that we don't know about it and say we're learning more, it's been with us for what may be like a week, you know, some early data is suggesting that it's likely to be more contagious than delta variant, which as you remember, was much more contagious than kind of native COVID-19. You know, there's some data that suggests that it does a better job of re-infecting people who previously had COVID-19, such that the idea of natural immunity starts to go away a little bit with that variant. But on a positive note, you know, right now there's not you know a ton of cases out there, around the world, but it doesn't look like it causes more severe disease. I don't think we know yet whether it causes less severe disease or just you know the same amount of severity but so far that's how it looks with all these things being preliminary we just need more data on it but some early studies are starting to demonstrate these things.

Nina Sparano: This came just so quickly we went a week ago of this just being brought up from the World Health Organization telling us is a level of concern to have been detected all over the country so how is this different?

Dr. Pothof: Other than the things you just mentioned from the delta variant, yeah, I think there are two things: there so one, what we've learned is that with COVID-19 and how mobile society is by the time that we picked up a variant it often has already taken off and has traveled to most parts of the world. So, by the time we identify it, it's already in other places. I think, secondarily, is sometimes you don't know what you're looking for until you know what to look for I think once we had the genetic sequencing of omicron from South Africa and could specifically look for that sequence, and isolates in different parts of the world, that's when you suddenly start to find them. If omicron is more contagious than delta, then that would be one of those things that would happen is, you know, one person would go on to infect you know a bunch more people they would infect a bunch more, and just a couple of generations which would only take 3-4 weeks, you could have a significant number of people around the world testing positive for omicron.

Nina Sparano: My last question now is the effectiveness of the vaccine against omicron. What can you say about that?

Dr. Pothof: Yeah I'd say the jury is still out. So it's unlikely with all of those mutations that we're going to get lucky and have this be as effective as it was against original COVID-19, so 94 plus percent effective. At the same time, it's not an all hope is lost situation, that vaccines are likely still to offer some immunity against even omicron. Now, whether that's more like delta, 70%, if it drops down some more 60% or 50%, we don't know the answer to that yet. I think the silver lining is it's very easy to adjust our current vaccines to account for both delta and omicron. I think you're going to see something like that in the next 6 to 8 months and that's how it will go on from COVID-19, as those who are vaccinated will occasionally get a booster that covers these new variants, we likely won't have any disease or if we do it should be very mild.