How Will Vaccination Efforts Impact the Spread of the Omicron Variant?

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina answers questions about how current COVID-19 vaccination efforts might affect the spread of the Omicron variant.


Air Date: December 9, 2021

Moderator: Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, Founder, Your Local Epidemiologist

The emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been a big topic of conversation in the medical community and the public after it was discovered in South Africa in November 2021.

When the World Health Organization first identified Omicron as a variant of concern, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation invited the founder of Your Local Epidemiologist, Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, to answer questions from the public about the variant. Now that the scientific community has more data and research on hand, Dr. Jetelina returned to give updated information about Omicron and the impact of current vaccination efforts.

Scientists Have Learned More About Omicron’s Transmissibility and Vaccine Immunity

In the weeks since the Omicron variant was first identified, more research has been conducted and more has been learned about the way it is spread and responds to existing COVID-19 vaccines. For instance, said Dr. Jetelina, we now know that Omicron uses the same “key” as other variants to enter the body’s cells to infect them. This is good news, as it means current COVID-19 vaccines are still useful, she said. One issue, however, is that Omicron comes with a smarter key.

“Our antibodies have partially escaped this virus,” said Dr. Jetelina. “Although some antibodies can still recognize the virus, a lot of them cannot.”

The variant is also highly transmissible, even in populations with high vaccination rates.

“Denmark has an 80% vaccination rate and it's still spreading, same with the UK,” Dr. Jetelina added. “We think ... we're really going to see an exponential spread and we're going to see an Omicron wave here in the United States.”

In terms of the severity of Omicron, Dr. Jetelina noted that there is currently an 8% hospitalization rate among those infected in South Africa. However, we still need more data to know if Omicron is conclusively less severe.

“We don't know if this is because South Africa has a very young population compared to the United States,” she explained. “We don't know if this is because our immunity is working, both infection-induced and from the vaccine. Or is this because Omicron is actually less severe?”

Boosters Are Essential to Slowing the Spread of Omicron

While we know that some antibodies cannot recognize the virus, Dr. Jetelina stressed the importance of getting a vaccine booster shot. She stated that they'll give people a boost of immunity that helps antibodies identify the virus and variants, which can help reduce breakthrough infection cases.

“With a booster, we have a lot more antibodies that can go find the virus and connect to them,” said Dr. Jetelina. “Boosters really provide a broader level of immunity so they can elicit antibodies to look at different areas.”

“A really important study came out yesterday from Pfizer, showing that yes, the third dose works very well against Omnicon compared to the two-dose series, which is fantastic,” she added.

An Omicron-Specific Vaccine May Not Be Necessary

Although vaccines are designed with variants in mind, there has been speculation that the pharmaceutical companies would create a vaccine that would specifically target Omicron. While this has not been entirely ruled out, it would be a lengthy process that ultimately may not be necessary due to a recent development.

“Previously [pharmaceutical companies] created an Alpha-specific vaccine, a Beta-specific vaccine, and a Delta-specific vaccine,” Dr. Jetelina said. “Interestingly, the Alpha-specific vaccine actually works even better than an Omicron-specific vaccine, and we're not entirely sure why that is. We really have to figure out why we're seeing this in the data and really try and predict where this virus is going to go in the future.”