Though booster doses of current vaccines can foil the ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus variant, a towering wave of omicron cases may peak in the US as soon as January, officials warn.
Scientists are still racing to fully understand the variant, which first gained international attention in late November. But a few things are becoming increasingly clear: The variant spreads stunningly fast, and it can largely circumvent protection from two vaccine doses. However, people who have received a third vaccine dose are well-protected against severe disease.
In a White House press briefing Wednesday, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci reviewed the early laboratory and real-world data on vaccine effectiveness. Numerous laboratory studies have all shown that levels of neutralizing antibodies from two doses of a vaccine are significantly lower against omicron—potentially so low that they do not protect against the variant. But studies looking at neutralizing antibodies after a third dose consistently find a substantial increase in protection. One study found a 38-fold rise in the level of neutralizing antibodies against omicron after a third dose of an mRNA vaccine.
Fauci also presented fresh, unpublished data from the National Institutes of Health, which found that a third dose of a Moderna vaccine restored neutralizing antibodies “well within the range of neutralizing omicron,” Fauci said.
The laboratory findings are bearing out in real-world clinical data, Fauci noted. Researchers in South Africa reported this week that protection against infection from two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine fell from 70 percent to 33 percent amid the omicron wave. But data from the United Kingdom found that getting a Pfizer-BioNTech booster dose restored protection, increasing vaccine effectiveness to 75 percent against symptomatic infection.
The findings have put a damper on the race to develop an omicron-specific vaccine dose, which Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have said they’re working on in case one is needed.
“Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron,” Fauci concluded. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster.”
Still, that won’t help the US dodge what experts expect will be a massive wave of omicron cases. As of Wednesday, just under 17 percent of the US population is fully vaccinated and boosted. And omicron is spreading fast.
The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that in a matter of two weeks, the variant has begun accounting for at least 3 percent of cases nationwide. In New York and New Jersey, it’s making up 13 percent of cases. Its share of cases is growing even amid a monstrous surge in cases from the extremely transmissible delta variant.
Currently, the US is logging nearly 120,000 new cases per day, and hospitalizations are up 22 percent over the past 14 days. This week, the country’s death toll reached 800,000.
Amid the delta surge, omicron’s prevalence in the US jumped seven-fold in just one week, and the CDC estimates it has a doubling time of around two days. According to the Washington Post, federal health officials held a call with public health organizations on Tuesday, in which they warned organizations to prepare for a huge wave of omicron cases in the coming weeks. CDC modeling suggests that an omicron wave could peak as soon as January, slamming into health systems as they struggle to handle delta and seasonal flu cases. A second modeled scenario projected a smaller wave in the spring. So far, it’s unclear which is more likely.
But officials elsewhere are warning of worst-case scenarios similar to the CDC’s first projection. Officials with the European Union said Wednesday that they expect omicron will be the dominant strain in the EU by mid-January. And a senior health advisor for the United Kingdom warned government officials on Tuesday that new cases could reach 1 million per day by the end of December.