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Vanderbilt disease expert calls omicron variant one of concern

Posted at 2:20 PM, Dec 01, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dr. William Schaffner is sitting at a place of concern with the latest COVID-19 variant.

The Vanderbilt University Medical Center infectious disease expert said the omicron variant — first discovered in South Africa — could quickly arrive in the United States and Tennessee. He said it was a matter of time before the variant showed up locally after being reported in North America.

"This omicron variant has accumulated a whole series of mutations that involve that critical aspect of the virus," Schaffner said. "The thing that we call the spike protein. Think of the virus as a little ball with spikes sticking out. That spike protein is what we're talking about. That's the key. When the virus hits our cells, it lets the key get into the lock. It lets the virus get into the cell, multiply and start producing the disease. What the vaccine does is glom onto that spike protein, so it can't get into our cells, and therefore we're protected. Can this new spike protein, on the omicron variant, evade the protections of our vaccines?"

In an address to the nation earlier Monday, President Joe Biden said that the nation should have a level of concern but not panic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci told Biden that it would take about two more weeks to have more definitive information on the omicron variant's transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics. Still, according to the White House, Fauci continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID-19.

"There's a lot of people who have fatigue over COVID," Schaffner said. "They wish it would go away. They have not only fatigue but annoyance. I'm going to have to ask you to sit tight. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. We're going to be dealing with COVID in one form or another going forward. I'm afraid that's the sad reality."

He said that the best option for people is to start masking again and get vaccinated and booster shots.

"Even with omicron, the boosters and the vaccines give us a lot of antibodies," he said. "That will provide, we trust, some protection against omicron and obviously, protection against delta, which is right here, right now, in Nashville spreading and making people sick — particularly unvaccinated persons."

Kyle Horan and Emily West at WTVF first reported this story.