Omicron: What Alaska’s health officials know — and don’t know — about the latest coronavirus variant

Many mutations with unknown impacts have medical community eager to learn more in coming weeks
Alaska's public health lab chief discusses why there are concerns about the omicron variant of the coronavirus, and what's still unknown.
Published: Nov. 30, 2021 at 1:23 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It was a holiday weekend in America when news broke worldwide of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, prompting nations to enact travel restrictions against countries in southern Africa and health officials to hold meetings through the American Thanksgiving weekend.

Their focus: Omicron, the latest variant of the novel coronavirus. Health officials say this variant has many more mutations than other variants, and many of those mutations are in the spike protein, which treatments and vaccines so far are aimed at detecting.

“It is clearly an animal of its own,” said Dr. Jayme Parker, chief of the state of Alaska’s public health laboratories, which sequence about 300 positive cases of the coronavirus in Alaska each week.

“What we do know right now is genetic information. Not a lot of epidemiologic information is available,” Parker said Monday afternoon, in a media availability held by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services specifically to discuss the new variant of the coronavirus. So far, no cases of the omicron variant have been detected in Alaska, or in the U.S.

South Africa, where the omicron variant was first discovered, was in the midst of a decrease after its wave of delta variant-driven COVID-19 cases, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, during that media availability. Then came another spike in cases.

“They, like many other countries, were doing a lot of sequencing and identified what looked like a very different virus than had been previously identified,” Zink said.

They quickly shared that information with the rest of the world, she said. Its recent discovery has left many of the details to bear out in the coming weeks and months, as sequencing, illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths all lag behind initial test collection.

“We don’t know many things about this,” Zink said. “We don’t know if it’s more transmissible. We don’t know if it makes you more sick, we don’t know if it makes you less sick. We don’t know if the vaccines will work just as well, or if they won’t work quite as well. We don’t know if our treatments will work the same or not.”

Many of the mutations of the omicron variant appear to be in the spike protein.

“The spike protein is what the virus uses to enter our cells and then to begin replication,” Zink explained Monday. “So the easier that that is able to enter our cells and to replicate, the easier it is to transmit.”

Monoclonal antibodies are targeted toward the spike protein of the coronavirus, Zink said. Earlier variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus had different impacts from different variations of monoclonal antibodies, Zink said, but with the delta variant, the available treatments all had about the same effect. Dr. Coleman Cutchins, a clinical pharmacist who works for the state, says monoclonal antibodies could be developed to target a new variant if current formulations prove ineffective.

In South Africa, both people who have previously had COVID-19 and people who are fully vaccinated have been infected.

In a Twitter thread posted by Zink Monday morning, which she titled, “The good, the bad and the ugly,” she included a graph showing the number of mutations of the different variants, or “the ugly”. Omicron, even to non-scientists, is as Zink described, “an outlier.”

”It is one of the most divergent variants we’ve seen throughout this whole pandemic,” Parker said Monday.

In good news, she said, it appears that the state’s labs are well-equipped to detect the omicron variant. The assays the state lab uses — or the screening tests they use to detect genetic changes — appear to work well for the omicron variant, Parker said.

Early information seems to indicate that rapid tests available to consumers over the counter will still be relevant, Zink said.

When it comes to the severity of illness or its evasiveness to vaccines, that data is still to come, according to the state’s health leaders.

”There really isn’t any systematically collected data yet available on signs and symptoms and severity,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s chief epidemiologist. “However, there have been some anecdotal reports from clinicians who have cared for patients infected with this strain of the virus suggesting that patients might have more intense fatigue than the delta variant and other variant-infected persons.”

While the impacts of the omicron variant have yet to play out, Alaska’s public health officials say the CDC’s latest recommendation that everyone over 18 get a COVID-19 booster shot when available is a positive step in slowing the spread of COVID-19, no matter which variant. McLaughlin said the medical community is concerned that the variant could lead to decreased efficiency in fighting COVID-19 from vaccine-induced antibodies, but that the CDC believes the current vaccines available will still be effective at preventing severe disease.

Zink still encourages Alaskans to get vaccinated if they haven’t already, and get a booster shot if eligible, particularly as the holidays, travel and gatherings approach. She encourages other actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 as well.

“There are many things that work against COVID-19 that we have learned over time,” Zink said. “Distancing, keeping our circles small, masking all make a big difference, as well as ventilation.

“The last thing that we do know is that vaccines likely will still work very well,” she continued. “How well? We have lots to learn in that space, but vaccines are our biggest tool against this virus, and we continue to follow that closely.”

The more people that are vaccinated, Zink says, the better chance there is of stopping future mutations of COVID-19.

“The more people that are vaccinated, the more protection we have, the less chance there are for variants, the less chance there is for spread, the healthier we all are,” she said.

With such little data available, why, then, are health officials so concerned?

“When those of us that have been looking at this genome over the last couple of years see this big of a jump, it is concerning and it is worth looking at,” Parker said. “Especially when we see it moving through communities. It is transmissible, it is here, it is a live virus that is capable of infecting people. So we want to keep tabs on it, and we want to make sure we understand its transmission across the planet.”

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