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Infectious disease expert sheds light on Omicron variant

Mark Parker

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Dr. John Greene is Chair of the Infectious Diseases program at Moffitt Cancer Center. He believes the days of widespread Covid outbreaks resulting in mass hospitalizations and deaths are over Photo: Screengrab.

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has officially made its way to Tampa Bay, and while it may be more contagious than the Delta variant, an infectious disease specialist explained why there is no need to panic.

The James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital in Tampa reported the first confirmed case of Omicron in Florida Tuesday. St. Lucie County later confirmed a second case. Florida now joins 19 other states with confirmed cases of the variant, all within a week of the first reported case in the country.

Dr. John Greene, Chair of Infectious Diseases for the Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa, told the Catalyst this was expected.

“This is hot off the press, and it’s not surprising,” said Greene. “I’m sure we’ll start to hear every day of another new one in a different city or location.”

Greene explained that the Delta variant has five to eight mutations, while Omicron can have 30. Greene said that testing and analysis of the coronaviruses are much more sophisticated than when Covid first appeared nearly two years ago, and the new variant appears to be significantly different. He said this is due to the virus trying to evade a person’s immune response and survive.

“When you put all that into the equation, they claim it is five times more contagious than Delta,” said Greene. “They also claim people in the hospital are not as sick … ”

Greene relayed that a study published from a hospital in South Africa – which first reported the variant – indicated that 75% of those hospitalized showed only mild symptoms and did not require oxygen. In addition to Omicron appearing as a more contagious yet weaker strain of Covid, Greene said the prevalence of vaccinations helps mitigate the severity.

Greene said he could not remember the exact number, but only around 10 of the 70 people hospitalized were vaccinated – and none needed ventilators.

“They feel like based on these small numbers if you have a high enough response, such as having a booster or some kind of antibody in your system, and your own T lymphocytes (determine the specificity of the immune response) can recognize it and ramp up production, then they feel like you’re going to have a less severe response,” explained Greene.

Greene also noted that many people infected with Omicron in South Africa were infected by another strain 12 to 18 months prior. He said the previous infections primed their immune system, and when combined with vaccination, the immune response then recognized many different mutations.

“There’s not a variant around that can fool it right now,” he said.

Greene said the consensus thus far is that if people are vaccinated and their immune system is healthy, their immune response will control the virus and prevent serious illness or death.

“Those are the things that are emerging,” said Greene. “And as [Dr. Anthony] Fauci and others have said, within one week we’re going to have a ton of information … about how the immune system is reacting to this.”

Greene did note that monoclonal antibody treatments may not be as effective due to the specificity of what it targets and variations within Omicron. but said the treatment will still offer some protection. He then reiterated how impressed he is with the detailed scientific research emanating from Covid studies.

“The scientific community is all over this thing,” he assured.

Greene added that pharmaceutical companies now realize the money, growth and impact the development of Covid vaccines and treatments can provide. He believes this incentivizes the companies to speed up production, which will lead to a perfectly matched Omicron variant vaccine available to the public within six months.

Greene acknowledges that many people worry they will need to get a booster every few months, but said he believes it will become an annual shot, like with the flu.

While it is not yet clear who was Omicron’s patient-zero, Greene relayed that many officials surmise it was an AIDS patient in South Africa whose immune system could not rid itself of the virus. After living in that person’s body for three to six months, many believe the virus acquired other genetic material, creating a “master mutated virus.”

Greene believes Omicron may be weaker but added that is not definitive. He also noted a report gaining publicity that describes more children in South Africa needing hospitalization from the strain. However, Greene stated that could be due to them hospitalizing kids with minimal symptoms out of an abundance of caution.

“So, that may not be a true statement,” he added.

Greene did say Omicron has a “competitive advantage” over Delta as it infects five times as many people.

“The prediction is it will replace Delta like it has done in South Africa,” said Greene. “Three months from now, we’ll be talking about Omicron as the dominant strain.”

Greene said Covid cases continue to trickle in throughout Florida but stressed they are not overwhelming. He believes it is possible that the virus “just disappears” as the population builds up immunity, or it could be an annual event like the flu. He said no one currently knows, and only time will tell.

While there may be an uptick in cases around the holidays as more people gather indoors together, Green said the fully vaccinated should not need a mask. He did say the immunocompromised will need to be more vigilant, and predicts a mild but noticeable flu season.

Greene wants people to know that when Covid first emerged, there was a strong sense of panic and fear due to the unknowns. He said health officials, scientists and the general public are now veterans after almost two years of enduring the pandemic. He acknowledged that many scientists and doctors still use the words “might” and “probably” when discussing the virus, but they now possess a firm grasp of the situation.

“We have enough information to accurately understand what’s happening – and what can happen,” stated Greene. “And so, the fear level is not as dominant, especially working in a hospital.”

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