UT Austin infectious disease expert gives insight into new omicron variant

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Scientists all over the world are watching a new variant of COVID-19, called omicron, closely.

The World Health Organization last week designated omicron as a “variant of concern,” and Dr. Anthony Fauci said over the weekend he “would not be surprised” if it was already in the country.

Experts at the LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease on the University of Texas at Austin campus study these kinds of pathogens and track their spread through populations. They aren’t surprised either the U.S. is bracing for another new variant.

In fact, Dr. Andy Ellington said based on how the virus has mutated so far, these kinds of variants could become a regular occurrence — similar to influenza, evolving almost every year.

Ellington, who also teaches molecular biosciences at UT, said scientists are particularly concerned with omicron because of how many mutations it has. Additionally, they are concerned about how many mutations are located on the spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to human cells.

“That could further impact the ability of the virus to bind to the host receptor, and potentially could also impact the ability of antibodies, either raised in our own systems or provided as therapeutics, to bind, and thereby prevent the virus from getting to our systems,” Ellington explained. “As the virus mutates, it gets to roll the dice differently than it normally would, and we don’t yet know how that’s going to play out. But as a variant of concern, we worry that the virus is going to have the odds more in its favor than it did before.”

Still, he says the vaccine is the best protection for individuals and against further mutations.

“So at one end, if nobody in the world was vaccinated, the virus would have free reign. At the other end, if everyone in the world had been vaccinated, it would have very little place to go,” he said. “We are somewhere in between.”

As a precaution, the U.S. on Monday restricted travel from at least eight southern African countries, where omicron emerged.

Ellington said, when it comes to viral evolution, restricting travel can slow the spread of a virus variant. Still, he says it’s important for leaders to consider all the other implications of travel bans, especially if we are bracing for variants to continue mutating into the future.

“Travel bans should make it harder to spread, as does wearing a mask, as does getting a vaccine,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t spread — it hopefully means that it will spread more slowly.”

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