The omicran variant has now been detected in Houston.
The first case in Texas was identified in Harris County by the state’s health department on Monday, and then again in Houston’s wastewater later that day.
Houston Public Media spoke with Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine and infectious disease expert at Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, who said Texans may have to deal with a mix both delta and omicron during the winter season.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How concerned are you about the omicron variant?
It’s my second biggest concern about COVID-19 in the United States. My first is this delta wave that’s gonna start revving up and it’s maybe already starting in Texas. And you know, that hit us so hard over the summer, and we’re up for another round. So you know, when I think about things that keep me up at night, it’s the next wave of the delta variant.
On top of that, now, we do have omicron starting up in Harris County, and it’s been confirmed with wastewater analysis of finding the omicron genome. So the cases will start to increase. Will it overtake Delta here in Texas? It’s hard to say, delta has been the king of all variants in terms of transmissibility, it’s hard to imagine how something could overtake it. I suppose it’s possible.
I think what we might be looking, at least as we head into the winter, is a twin epidemic of delta and omicron, possibly with some differences in which populations they disproportionately affect.
I’d imagine many unvaccinated Houstonians who were infected with delta over the summer are thinking to themselves that they’re immune now. Is that true? Based on everything we know about omicron and delta, what’s the likelihood of you getting reinfected with either of those variants?
With the omicron variant, what we’re seeing in South Africa — lots of omicron reinfections. So assume that if you’re infected and recovered, and you don’t get vaccinated, you’re pretty susceptible to omicron reinfections. You may even be susceptible to delta reinfection.
There’s some studies from the Centers for Disease Control, showing that if you are infected previously and also get vaccinated on top of that, versus the existing virus lineages here in the United States, you’re twofold less likely to get reinfected.
So no matter how you slice it, whether you’re worried about delta or we’re worried about omicron, if you’re infected and recovered, get vaccinated on top of that.
You tweeted an article referencing the study conducted by researchers in South Africa, showing that the Omicron variant partially evades protection provided by the Pfizer vaccine. It’s preliminary information, but why did you want to draw attention to that report?
This is the first cross virus neutralizing antibody study we have against the omicron variant from any of the vaccines. So the way it worked is a group in South Africa, where omicron is dominant now, looked at immune responses in vaccinated individuals. I think it’s mostly with people with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. They have found a 40-fold decrease in virus neutralizing antibodies against omicron.
Now before you wring your hands and say, “oh my god, 40-fold decrease.” You know, we deal on a log scale in virology, so it’s not that terrible. And remember, if you get your third immunization, that gives you a 30 to 40-fold rise in your virus neutralizing antibodies.
So the point is, if you get your third immunization, it says to me that there’s a good likelihood that you’ll have some cross protection, or spillover antibody as Tony Fauci says against the omicron variant. Still very preliminary, not even in preprint form, but we’ll continue to see studies like that.