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The Coronavirus in Greater Houston

Omicron could be tougher against the COVID-19 vaccine than other variants, Rice research shows

Gene Godbold, a scientist with Austin-based contractor Signature Science who has compiled a list of omicron’s mutations, spoke with Houston Public Media about what the research says about the new variant.

Pedestrians wearing face masks against the coronavirus walk along a street..
Pedestrians wearing face masks against the coronavirus walk along Regent Street in London, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. The emergence of the new COVID-19 omicron variant and the world’s desperate and likely futile attempts to keep it at bay are reminders of what scientists have warned for months: The coronavirus will thrive as long as vast parts of the world lack vaccines.

Rice University researchers have been leading a project, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of mapping out mutations of the coronavirus. Most recently, they've been focusing their efforts on the omicron variant, which was classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization last week.

The first cases of the variant in the United States were identified this week.

Gene Godbold, a scientist with Austin-based contractor Signature Science who has compiled a list of omicron's mutations, spoke with Houston Public Media about what the research says about the new variant.

Listen or read the interview below, edited for length and clarity.

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Looking at the mutations of this variant, do any of them raise alarm bells? And are any associated with higher risk of transmission or the ability to evade the protection we get from vaccines?

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That’s a deep kind of question. It’s not just one thing. So there’s almost 1,300 residues in the spike protein. And a lot of them, if they change to something else, might not have any effect at all. But compared to the Wuhan strain, the ancestral string, this has got like 30 amino acid changes and then a couple of deletions and insertions in areas that you’d want to care about.

OK, so we can break it down. We can talk about transmission first.

There’s good reason to believe that the mutations make this more transmissible. Before delta, alpha was the most transmissible variant. And (omicron’s) got the same mutations as alpha does, plus it’s got some other concerning ones.

Obviously, the reason we’re talking about is because we know it’s already spreading. The proof is in the pudding already. So we know that the virus is a problem, and it seems to be spreading in the face of all the other variants.

Given the mutations that the science community knows and understands already, is it possible that this variant could evade protection the vaccines give to us?

Basically, the takeaway message is that the omicron variant has more immune evasive mutations than anything we’ve seen yet. And it may have even more than that because it’s got new ones that nobody studied yet. So the question of whether it evades the vaccines? It probably doesn’t. I mean, it probably isn’t going to evade a normal person with a normal immune system. And why is this? Like a normal immune response, you can generate dozens of different types of neutralizing antibodies. I think the most immune invasive variant so far has knocked out like six of those neutralizing antibodies.

I can’t guarantee it, but it looks like Omicron is going to wipe out a lot more than six. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have any defense, because obviously neutralizing antibodies aren’t the whole thing, but neutralizing antibodies are really important to prevent transmission and colonization. So it’s probably going to be more likely to get a foothold into people, is what I’m betting on. Even people who are vaccinated and boosted are probably still gonna be able to get this more than the other variants.

Now, there’s no way to tell how this is going to work out in terms of what kind of sickness they get. It may be mild, it may be just a cold for the people that are vaccinated. We’re going to have to see how that works.

You mentioned the possibility of more breakthrough infections for people that are vaccinated. And you kind of touched on people with normal immune systems. Do you have any sense in how this might play out in someone who is immunocompromised?

There’s a variety of ways a person can be immunocompromised. Actually there's like five ways that you could be compromised. Each one is going to be different, so it would be hard to generalize about something like that. But in general, it would not be good. I mean, that this is like common sense, but basically, if you're immunocompromised, you want to avoid going out. Sorry, that’s lame, but that's true.

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