Omicron, now in Massachusetts, has global spreader potential, expert says

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Photo: Hongyu Liu

The exterior of the COVID testing site.

By Vivi Smilgius and Bailey Allen

Massachusetts reported its first case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant on Saturday, renewing concerns about the spread of the virus just days before the end of the fall term. 

Genetic sequencing identified the variant—which was discovered in South Africa on Nov. 22, and labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26—in a Middlesex County resident. The fully-vaccinated female in her 20s had recently traveled out of state, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The news comes as cases surge in the state, reaching levels not seen since last winter; on Wednesday alone, Massachusetts reported 5,403 positives and 12 deaths. 

In response, Emerson will require all students, faculty, staff and vendors to obtain a booster vaccination shot before returning to campus after winter break, according to a Wednesday afternoon campus-wide email from  Associate Vice President for Campus Life and “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp Wednesday.

“We should be concerned, we shouldn’t panic,” Muurisepp said in an interview with The Beacon. “There’s still so many unknowns, unfortunately, because [Omicron] is still so relatively new. We’re taking it day by day.”

The decision to require boosters falls in line with the viewpoint of Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth. Ellerin said his concern is the development of Omicron’s mutational patterns, which might be similar to some of the “all-star” mutations in the variants that preceded it.

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“When you look at the mutational pattern of Omicron and what’s happening in South Africa, the question is, ‘Does that have the potential to happen on a global scale?’” he said. “‘Does this have the potential to be a global spreader?’ And I think the answer is yes.”

Omicron’s emergence comes during the holiday season, while many students plan to travel—something Ellerin says will inevitably lead to a spike in cases. Though the Biden administration recently reinstituted travel bans on eight southern African countries where the variant was first detected, Ellerin said these policies will “only be partially effective for a limited time period.”

He added that an important part of stopping the global spread of COVID-19 is worldwide vaccine distribution, especially to countries whose citizens have yet to receive their initial doses.

“You have to get vaccines to [undervaccinated countries]… but it’s not just getting vaccines there,” said Ellerin. “Many of the places don’t have the infrastructure to get the vaccine to the people that need it. It’s complicated.”

Global vaccine disparity creates opportunities for “uncontrolled viral replication,” Ellerin said, driving the rise of variants like Delta, the variant first identified in India that is now responsible for nearly 100 percent of US cases and Omicron. 

Nevertheless, Ellerin acknowledged the advantages of the human immune system after almost two years of life with COVID-19. Certain studies suggest that Omicron, while more transmissible, causes milder illness than previous strains—particularly for vaccinated individuals. 

“At the same time… in 2021, there’s been more deaths from COVID than in 2020,” he added.

On Wednesday, Pfizer-BioNTech reported that a third shot of its COVID-19 vaccine offered robust protection against the variant. The news came a day after a study in South Africa found that the vaccine’s protection in individuals who received two doses was significantly lessened by Omicron. 

With winter approaching, Ellerin said it is likely the US will see cases of the Omicron variant intermingled with other strains in the country’s predicted “Delta winter.”

“I don’t think it can be a complete Omicron winter, but it could be a mixture,” he said.

Ellerin also emphasized the importance of increased testing and mask wearing to minimize the spread of the virus throughout the winter. He also said everyone eligible should get a booster shot to retain immunity, and that companies should “develop next-generation vaccines” to get ahead of the virus and its mutations.

“A lot of it is back to basics,” said Ellerin. “What do we need to do? We need to vaccinate more. We need to boost more… We need to mask more, whether it’s Delta, whether it’s Omicron… and we need to develop [vaccines] as rapidly as possible.”

Camilo Fonseca and Frankie Rowley contributed reporting.