UVA Health Experts Explain What We Know (So Far) About COVID Variant

A woman holds up a sticker after getting her third "booster" dose of Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

By Amie Knowles
December 1, 2021

There’s still lots to learn about the Omicron variant, but we break down the basics.

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Just in time for the holidays, COVID-19 has another “gift.” But it’s the kind of gift we’d rather not receive. There’s a new COVID variant going around called Omicron, and the world’s bracing for another wave. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case in the United States on Wednesday.

We spoke with Dr. Taison Bell, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia who specializes in infectious diseases, to learn about Omicron compared to previous COVID-19 variants. 

“When there’s a change, either one of three things will happen,” Bell said. “One, nothing because there’s no real difference in the original strain versus the change. Two, there could be less effectiveness for the virus to spread and those sorts of changes will die out over time. And then three, which is the concerning one, is that there’s some enhancement of the virus: either with its ability to bind to our cells and make it easier to gain access—so that would mean it’s more transmissible or easy to spread—or it could become more virulent or it could become more deadly.”

Bell said Omicron is concerning because there’s a higher number of mutations, which some experts fear could allow the variant to escape vaccine or immune protection. However, he cautioned against jumping to assumptions as scientists await data on how easily the virus is transmitted, how severe it is, and if it regularly infects vaccinated people.

Dr. William Petri, another infectious disease expert at UVA Health, highlighted how quickly the Omicron variant appeared to become dominant in South Africa, the first country to identify the mutation. 

“The Omicron variant is new—first seen in early November in Africa—and in South Africa is replacing the Delta variant as the major cause of COVID-19. This is important because it shows that Omicron is more infectious than Delta,” Petri said. “We know historically that Delta was, in turn, more infectious than Alpha, as Delta replaced Alpha throughout the world last summer. If Omicron is in fact more infectious than Delta in the US, then we can expect more COVID-19 cases as a result.”

How Omicron Could Affect Virginia

It’s hard to tell how long Virginians have to prepare before the newest variant arrives—again, if it hasn’t already. But one thing seems certain; it’ll come eventually. 

“The nature of the virus is to spread,” Bell said.

And that’s exactly what he predicts Omicron will do. 

“We have an international airport. Lots of people travel to Virginia,” Bell said. “So it’s only a matter of time before it comes, unfortunately.” 

Until its arrival, predicting the impact the new variant could have on the commonwealth is more of an educated guess.

“When Omicron arrives in Virginia, we will have to see [if] it out-competes Delta and becomes the predominant variant,” Petri said. “If it does, that in itself will be indicative that it is more infectious than Delta. A more infectious variant than Delta would lead to more infections in Virginia.”

Petri said that for now, the Delta variant is still the biggest problem, both in Virginia and in the world. He encouraged vaccination against COVID-19 which can help combat Delta and other current variants found in the commonwealth.

“We are still in a high transmission time for COVID-19 in Virginia because of Delta,” Petri said. “The vaccines protect well against Delta, and with an added surge of cases expected with holiday travel, this is a great time to get boosted if you are 18 years of age and older, and also get your children 5 years of age and older vaccinated.”

Omicron and Vaccines

While getting vaccinated can help protect people from severe COVID consequences, there’s often a question of whether or not the vaccines will continue working against emerging variants.

“Vaccine immunity is not like an on or off switch,” Bell said. “It’s more like if there’s a change in a variant that could decrease effectiveness. It’s not like we have no protection if we’ve gotten the vaccine before, but what it might mean is that we might need either higher levels of vaccine antibodies to be able to neutralize the new virus. Or we might need to have a vaccine that has an updated sort of structure so that our immune system could be more in tune with it.” 

Bell further noted that even with the chance of less effectiveness—and to be clear, he did predict vaccines would still be effective against Omicron—vaccination would still offer a level of protection. 

“Getting vaccinated, obviously, is a good idea if you haven’t already, but getting a booster would be a great idea, you know, considering the Omicron variant,” Bell said. “Because, you know, one, it can increase your antibody levels and that just makes it easier for your immune system to neutralize it. But two, getting a booster can actually broaden your immune response and actually teach your immune system to make new antibodies that could recognize different parts of the spike protein, which means that you could have a higher chance of recognizing variants.”

COVID-19 vaccines are readily available in Virginia, as are booster opportunities. To schedule an appointment, visit vaccinate.virginia.gov, call your primary care provider, or contact your local health department.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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