As the first case of the omicron variant appeared in the U.S., OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said little is known about its severity, transmissibility and ability to evade vaccines during a Wednesday OU Health livestream.
It’s unclear where the newest variant originated, but South African officials first informed the World Health Organization about its spread. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country has been punished for detecting omicron, but reports of the variant were made in the Netherlands and Botswana around the same time. Since its detection, the mutation has spread to at least 17 different countries and territories.
Bratzler explained that unmitigated spread occurs in regions with few vaccinated people, and more than 50 countries still haven’t hit a 10 percent vaccination rate set by the WHO. When a virus spreads, mutations appear.
Only 4.4 percent of the population of Africa has received the COVID-19 vaccine, Bratzler said. Additionally, 22 percent of the population in Botswana is fully vaccinated, and only 24 percent of the population in South Africa is fully vaccinated.
Bratzler said he believes shutting down borders now would likely have limited effectiveness.
“It's too late at this point,” Bratzler said. “It's like closing the barn door after the horses have already left. We're well beyond that.”
Bratzler said he’s unsure if the omicron variant will spread in the U.S. at the same rate it did in South Africa, but some aspects of it are likely to make it similarly contagious to the delta variant. However, the fact that around 60 percent of all Americans are fully vaccinated indicates the variant’s spread might be more contained. According to the WHO, not enough is known about the mutation to know if it’s more serious than the delta variant.
Several labs have found the antibodies produced by current vaccines might not be as effective against mutations. Because of this, Bratzler said treatments are going to be important in response to the omicron variant.
Monoclonal antibodies are used for people who test positive for COVID-19 and have been found to be 70 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and death in high-risk unvaccinated patients. Bratzler also said several new antiviral medicines have shown promise.
Merck’s, a COVID-19 pill, was given emergency use authorization by a slim majority of an FDA advisory panel Tuesday. It’s been shown to reduce hospitalization and death in high-risk patients by about 30 percent. However, the treatment likely won’t be approved for pregnant women, Bratzler said.
A new Pfizer COVID-19 pill has also been found to be 89 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and death and is awaiting emergency use authorization. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla also said the company could have a vaccine protecting against omicron in less than 100 days.
“I think it's going to be very, very important that if we see spread of omicron that is now in the U.S., and if we start seeing it spread pretty quickly, then it's going to be really, really important that we have treatment in our hip pocket to keep people out of the hospital, and to keep them from having severe complications of the disease,” Bratzler said.
He said the omicron variant has had significant financial consequences, as the stock markets took a hit after it was detected in South Africa and have continued to dip.
Many insurance companies now consider COVID-19 a preventable disease and are no longer waiving copays and deductibles. Ancillary services are often $3,000 to $4,000, and are typically higher for people in the hospital, Bratzler said.
He said in Oklahoma, the mortality rate has trended slightly upward. In addition, around 25 percent of people hospitalized across the state are partly and fully vaccinated. Only around 50 percent of Oklahomans are fully vaccinated, and the amount of Oklahomans 12 and up who are fully vaccinated is approaching 60 percent.
Most of the state remains in the highest transmission rate zone, but some counties are now in the moderate transmission zone, as defined by the CDC. When a county reduces its transmission rate, it can consider reducing mitigation techniques, Bratzler said.
Oklahoma is currently 28th in the nation for COVID-19 cases, with about 133.7 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days, Bratzler said.
Oklahoma has a seven-day average of 750 new cases, while about two weeks ago, it saw an average of around 850 cases. Bratzler said, while slow, the number is trending downward, which is promising. However, he added if there’s an uptick in cases because of Thanksgiving, it’s likely to be seen in reports this weekend and early next week.
Bratzler said age is still the biggest predictor of COVID-19 outcomes. He said the prevalence of variants has also highlighted the importance of boosters for everyone.
“I think there's pretty good reason to believe that, even if the vaccines don't completely protect you against the omicron variant, they will do things that we see all the time, which is reduce your chance of being hospitalized for having severe complications,” Bratzler said. “So I strongly encourage people to both get the primary vaccine series and then to get the booster.”