Coronavirus Update: Fauci suggests omicron-specific vaccines may not be needed


It’s becoming clear that much of the concern about the omicron variant has to do with how much it will cut into the protection provided by the COVID-19 vaccines.

New details about omicron have emerged this week that indicate the variant may not cause more severe disease but is likely much more infectious than the delta variant. This means that even those who are fully vaccinated may be at higher risk for contracting this variant than other forms of the virus.

With little science to go on right now, there has been a wide range of responses to the few details we have so far about omicron.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla this week said a fourth dose of its COVID-19 vaccine could be needed, within a year of getting the third shot. A headline in The Atlantic says “The pandemic of the vaccinated is here.” And this is why health officials continue to push people who are fully vaccinated to get a booster shot of any COVID-19 vaccine. (Teens who are 16 and 17 years old can now get BioNTech BNTX, -9.33% and Pfizer’s PFE, +1.34% booster.)

“Although we don’t have all the answers on the omicron variant, initial data suggests that COVID-19 boosters help broaden and strengthen the protection against omicron and other variants,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement on Thursday.

Vaccines and natural infection can create immunity through different avenues, including T-cells and antibodies. The worry has been that omicron might be able to evade these protective antibodies.

However, new research says that people who have generated a T-cell response through COVID-19 vaccination or infection may still be protected against omicron, though it’s unclear to what degree, according to a new preprint, which is preliminary medical research that has not been peer-reviewed.

“SARS-CoV-2 has not evolved extensive T-cell escape mutations at this time,” concluded the study’s authors, who include scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Johns Hopkins Medicine. 

(“Good news,” tweeted Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a University of Toronto infectious diseases physician.)

And if existing vaccines, including boosters, can hold up against omicron, that may mean we won’t need a variant-specific COVID-19 vaccine.

“If you look at protection against variants, it appears to relate to the level of immunity and the breadth of the immunity that any given vaccine can instill on you,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, said in an interview with STAT.

Here’s what else you should know about COVID-19 

Ten percent of Americans believe that the COVID-19 vaccines conflict with their religious beliefs, according to a NPR story about a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core. 

About 50 million in the U.S. who have been sick with COVID-19 still have persistent symptoms, including severe fatigue, in cases that are known as long COVID, according to The Washington Post. Some have to quit their jobs, others are racking up debt, and experts estimate that between 750,000 to 1.3 million people can no longer work full time. 

The latest COVID-19 numbers

The daily average case count in the U.S. was 119,788 on Thursday, down from 121,311 on Wednesday, but overall the case count was still up 30% from two weeks ago, according to the New York Times tracker. The daily average death toll was 1,281 on Thursday, compared with 1,275 on Wednesday, and is up 18% from two weeks ago. Hospitalizations increased to a two-month high of 62,971.

The number of fully vaccinated people in the U.S. rose to 200.7 million, or 60.5% of the population, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the number of people receiving booster shots rose to 49.9 million, or 24.9% of the population.

The number of new cases in South Africa continues to sharply rise, with 22,391 new cases on Thursday, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases there. Only 22 deaths were reported on Thursday.  

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