Omicron variant: Expert on what could come next in fight against pandemic

U.S. health officials are on high alert and looking for any cases of the new omicron variant.

Questions are also being raised if this new variant will overtake delta. Dr. Otto Yang, a leading infectious disease expert with UCLA Health, explained how this may all play out.

"It is normal for the most part for viruses to evolve and adapt," Yang said.

He said mutating to a milder infection is how a virus survives. It needs a host.

"If the virus is killing people, then that's actually not good for the virus itself in the long run," Yang said.

Scientists say the omicron variant's spike protein contains more changes, making it more transmissible. Yang predicts we will probably see more cases and breakthrough infections, but the current vaccines will remain protective.

"The vaccines, especially people who get the boosters, will still protect people from serious illness or death. People who get infected will have mild infections or no symptoms at all," he said.

But if the spike proteins don't match what's in the vaccines, aren't they less effective? Yang said think of antibodies as the first line of defense. If the virus gets past them, our body's T-cells will recognize this virus no matter how much it changes.

"T-cells work in a different way. They recognize any part of the spike protein, not just the receptor binder domain. They don't depend on the shape. And so the T-cell should still work fine and people should still be protected from getting sick or dying," Yang said.

And while our current vaccines still provide protection, the same tools we've been using throughout the pandemic will be effective against this variant and any that comes after.

"Distancing, masks, avoiding indoor spaces and especially getting vaccinated and getting boosted are still the basics that will still work," he said.

Moderna and Pfizer announced they're already working on an omicron-specific booster. Johnson & Johnson said it's continuing to evaluate its vaccine against the new variant.

Yang said just like the flu shot that contains three or four different strains, future COVID-19 vaccines may follow a similar model.

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