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Area doctors weigh in on new Omicron variant

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It only took five days for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 to spread from South Africa to the United States with the fi rst case being confi rmed in California on December 1. The new strain has also spread to several other countries, including Botswana, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

Dr. Lou Ann Bruno-Murtha, division chief of infectious diseases at Cambridge Health Alliance, said it is only a matter of time before Omicron works its way into Massachusetts. The arrival of Omicron in the Bay State will only compound the current problems created by the already-prevalent Delta variant.

“Delta is still the variant contributing to the recent increase in infections and hospitalizations in the region,” said Bruno- Murtha. “The science and implications of the Omicron variant are actively being examined, and we will know more very soon. At this time, the best response is to promote COVID vaccination for those not fully vaccinated and encourage everyone who is eligible to seek a booster dose as soon as possible.”

Dr. Kimiyoshi Kobayashi, chief quality offi cer at UMass Memorial Medical Center, said Massachusetts may not necessarily be a target. “It is still unclear whether this will happen,” he said. “It will depend on how it competes with the Delta variant. We will have to watch what the balance between Delta and Omicron will be.”

Dr. George Abraham, chief of medicine at Saint Vincent Hospital, said he was not surprised by the detection of Omicron and the previous strains. “We have predicted and long suspected that we would see variants,” he said. “The variants pop up in parts of the world where there have been the lowest levels of vaccination.”

Abraham also said Omicron may not be that troublesome in the long-term. “Based on preliminary data from our South African colleagues, the number of cases has risen dramatically, about 700-fold, but the number of hospitalizations, serious illnesses and deaths have not increased signifi cantly,” he said. “This suggests that there might be overall mild disease associated with this variant as opposed to severe disease.”

In addition, Abraham said he trusts the effi cacy of the vaccines. “We know the vaccines work reasonably well, generating what’s called virus- specific antibodies. But they also generate what’s called a polyclonal response,” he said. “That means it may also work against some viruses in the same family. Right now we need to determine how well our vaccines work against this variant.”

Dr. Shira Doron, an Infectious Disease physician and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said Delta continues to attract a great deal of attention. “Delta is a major threat in Massachusetts and for the time being, a far greater one. We do not yet know if Omicron is more deadly, more transmissible or more easily evades immunity than Delta,” she said. “If it does any of those things and if it manages to outcompete Delta and become predominant, then it could mean a worse winter than what we are already facing. What everyone should do now is get vaccinated if they have not received the vaccine. If eligible for a booster, now is the time to get one.”

Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, shared a diff erent opinion, saying it is likely that Omicron is already in Massachusetts. “I’m sure it’s here,” he said.

Kuritzkes said he was very surprised to learn that the new variant had been detected in Australia, which has extremely tight COVID-19 restrictions. “It’s highly mutated,” he said of Omicron. “This is why people need to get vaccinated.”

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