Lowcountry medical professionals researching, preparing for Omicron variant

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 5:42 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 29, 2021 at 9:19 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - While South Carolina has not seen a case of the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, local health officials say they are on alert for it.

Dr. Robert Oliverio at Roper St. Francis Health Care says they’re expecting to see cases of the new Omicron variant here in the United States. It’s something Dr. Michael Sweat with MUSC says he expects as well.

Sweat compared the developments of new coronavirus variants popping up now to a game of wack-a-mole.

While they do not know a lot about the Omicron variant yet, Sweat says they’re working closely with their sequencing lab at MUSC to study the sequence of Omicron.

Dr. Julie Hirschhorn is Director of Molecular Pathology and director of the sequencing lab at MUSC. She says there are some mutations in Omicron that have been seen before in strains that have increased transmission.

Oliverio says it’s important to note that many virus’ mutate, and it’s expected to continue until we reach herd immunity.

“Yeah this could turn into sort of an influenza where every year we have to figure out, how is this going to change and hopefully develop vaccines to anticipate that,” Oliverio said. “Which is what we do with influenza now. We’ll need more of a track record in terms of how coronavirus actually mutates.”

Oliverio says it’s still unclear whether the Omicron variant is going to be more transmissible, and whether vaccinated people will have immunity against it. Hirschhorn says she anticipate more results in the next week or two.

Since they have the sequence for the variant at MUSC, she says it allows them to test what’s going on.

“From this point on, the most important thing that we can do is try and sequence as fast as possible, so that way we can continually monitor to figure out if we’re going to see this variant in the US, we can figure out where it is and how it’s spreading,” Hirschhorn said.

Hirschhorn says their experience with the Delta variant helped prepare them for future mutations. She says the Delta variant had about 16 mutations in its spike protein gene, and Omicron has about 32 mutations.

That’s one of the major reasons she says the World Health Organization classified it as a concern. She says they are still working to determine how these mutations will react to monoclonal antibodies and how serious of a virus it can be.

“I feel pretty confident in saying that we’ve learned over time that the US has really picked up it’s sequencing efforts,” she said. “And the ability to sequence the variant and the ability to say which lineage we’re looking at, is so critical to understanding what’s going on in our country.”

While she says they still have lots of questions about this new variant, treatment for this variant will stay the same as it’s been for other variants.

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