Vanderbilt disease expert calls omicron variant one of concern

Posted at 1:49 PM, Nov 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 13:51:26-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — 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 easily arrive in the United States and Tennessee. He said it was a matter of time before the variant showed up locally after it has already been 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?"

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

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

"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 to 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."