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The omicron variant is the latest proof that the pandemic isn't over


Infectious disease experts have said this again and again - the pandemic is not over. The omicron variant is the latest proof of that. It was first identified in South Africa. There are now cases in several countries. And there's still a lot about this variant that we don't know. NPR's Allison Aubrey is following this story closely. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Where has omicron been identified?

AUBREY: Well, the variant has been found in the U.K., Israel, Hong Kong, several European countries and also now in Canada - two cases in Ontario as of last night. And though there are lots of travel restrictions, it's very difficult to stop the spread, Noel. So it's likely just a matter of time before it's detected in the U.S. Right now the concern is that this new variant has many mutations, and it could spread easily. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking on NBC yesterday.


ANTHONY FAUCI: The profile of the mutations strongly suggest that it's going to have an advantage in transmissibility. And that together with the fact that it just kind of exploded - in the sense that when you look in South Africa, you were having a low level of infection, and then all of a sudden there was this big spike. And when the South Africans looked at it, they said, oh, my goodness; this is a different virus than we've been dealing with.

AUBREY: So concerns about the new variant are layered on top of the current surge in Europe. And here in the U.S., new cases have been rising for weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

KING: Are vaccinated people protected against omicron?

AUBREY: You know, it's just not clear yet. To try to figure this out, scientists will take plasma from vaccinated people and see if the antibodies in the plasma neutralize or fend off the omicron variant of the virus. This will offer some indication. And doctors will also be tracking the known cases in South Africa and elsewhere to get a sense of the severity. Among fully vaccinated people, the expectation is that there would be some protection. Here's former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb. He's on the board of Pfizer. And he spoke on CBS yesterday.


SCOTT GOTTLIEB: The question here is going to be whether or not a fully boosted individual, someone who's had three doses of vaccine, has good protection against this variant. And right now if you talk to people in vaccine circles, people who are working on a vaccine, they have a pretty good degree of confidence that a boosted vaccine - so three full doses of vaccine - is going to be fairly protective against this new variant.

AUBREY: Even if there's some decrease in protection, the vaccines have been shown to work against other variants. So the expectation is that this will also be true to some extent with omicron, but again, omicron has lots of mutations that complicate this. So still a lot to figure out.

KING: So if it turns out that the vaccines we have do not protect us against this variant, is it possible to rework them so that they are?

AUBREY: Yes, absolutely. I mean, that's kind of the beauty of the mRNA technology. Moderna has already started working on an omicron-specific booster, a spokesperson told me yesterday. In terms of timing, the company says it can get a new booster candidate to clinical testing in about 60 to 90 days. So, you know, vaccine-makers have anticipated that they may need to alter the boosters, so they've been preparing for all the possibilities.

KING: You know, if we think back to what we experienced last year, we know that experts predicted possibly a post-Thanksgiving surge because so many people traveled. Is that still a concern?

AUBREY: Yes. I mean, just before Thanksgiving, cases had climbed pretty significantly to about 94,000 cases a day here in the U.S. The rise in cases is most notable in the Northeast and Midwest but certainly not limited to these areas. In fact, more than 80% of counties in the U.S. have seen either high or significant levels of spread leading up to Thanksgiving. I spoke to Dr. David Rubin of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia about what we can expect over the next several weeks after all the holiday travel and gatherings.

DAVID RUBIN: So I do think Thanksgiving is the holiday that often leads to the greatest acceleration 'cause people just go right back to work and go back to school the next week. So I expect some increases in substantial transmission in the weeks ahead. And I think this is a time that I would encourage not just unvaccinated but vaccinated individuals to equip themselves with the mask again.

AUBREY: Especially when in indoor, crowded public spaces. Now, modelers have anticipated that a post-holiday, kind of early winter surge could be the last period of substantial resurgence in the U.S. given that about 74% of eligible people are vaccinated with at least one shot. And even with the uncertainty introduced by omicron, the more people who get vaccinated and boosted, the more protected we will likely be.

KING: And if someone has been traveling over Thanksgiving or was doing so and notices symptoms, they should do what?

AUBREY: Well, you should get tested. I mean, one option is to go to a pharmacy testing site or a doctor's office for a PCR test. The other option - you can buy one of the over-the-counter rapid antigen tests, such as the Abbott BinaxNOW test. These come in two-packs, so you should do two tests with at least 24 hours between them for most accurate results. So these tests don't pick up very early infections. That's why two tests are recommended - because one day you could be negative, and the next day you could be positive.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.