Athens News Matters: Dr John Drake discusses new Omicron variant of COVID-19 | WUGA


The science of disease modeling can give public health officials clues as to how far and how quickly diseases like the coronavirus can spread, and their severity.

Omicron is yet another variant of COVID-19, and researchers and public health officials are actively working to find more information on this new twist in the ongoing coronavirus saga.

The thing we need to understand now is how Omicron is going to react to the pressure of vaccines.

As public health officials scramble to locate the virus, other researchers plan to model the future of the disease and its spread.

Dr John Drake, professor at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia and director of the University Center for Infectious Disease Ecology, joins Chris Shupe of WUGA to talk about the science behind the prediction the behavior of pathogens and what the future might look like. stand for the new Omicron variant of Covid.

This transcript has been edited for clarity

Chris Shupe:

Welcome to Athens News Matters.

Dr. John Drake:

Hello, Chris.

CS:

So, before we get into the actual variant, let’s quickly review the process of modeling an infectious disease. What key factors are considered when creating a model for a disease?

JD:

Basically what a model is is a representation of what we think is happening in a process in nature. So, with infectious diseases, we could, for example, develop a model of transmission or movement of the virus in space. And in fact, in the case of Omicron, one of the things that I think will be the most useful in the coming weeks are the scalable models.

CS:

Hmm. That looks interesting. Tell me a little more about the evolutionary models.

JD:

The virus itself has a genome. And as an RNA virus, this genome mutates a lot. The variants we have seen arise when there are specific mutations that give the virus new properties. If we have a model of how these changes happen, then maybe we can infer some things about how fast they spread.

CS:

I suspect there is nothing really easy about any of this. But is it a little easier to model a variant of a pre-existing disease than, say, a new infectious agent?

JD:

Certainly. So when SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, was first discovered in late 2019 and early 2020, we knew very little about its transmission. How come people catch it from each other? Of course, the thing we need to understand now is how Omicron is going to react to the vaccine pressure. Our vaccines have been developed to target earlier variants, including Alpha and Delta. We don’t yet know how well they will work against Omicron. And there are some clues in the genetic sequence of the Omicron virus that suggest it might not work as well against Omicron as it does against Delta.

CS:

Interesting. I know we have the current COVID models. What more can these models suggest when we look at Omicron?

JD:

Well, one of the things we know from modeling exercises is that it’s very, very difficult to keep a virus out of one place. But there was a very rapid response all over the world restricting the movement of people. And I guess to some extent that might be helpful as far as Omicron is concerned, to save some time while we develop our answer. But one of the things the models show us is that it’s not an effective long-term response.

CS:

Thinking back to COVID-19, in general, tell us a bit more about how these models actually helped officials decide certain steps to try to contain the virus.

JD:

One of the things I think they are very useful for is looking at the effectiveness of different practices and policies. So, for example, the effectiveness of face masks, which we know are effective against all variants. Another thing that we can use models for is decision support. So we can ask “if then” questions. One of the things the models have shown us is that if we were to deploy vaccines more effectively, if we would have higher vaccine coverage, then containment would actually be much more achievable. But there is also the will of the people to receive these vaccines, and the models cannot solve that problem for us.

CS:

Well I know there is so much we don’t know, especially about this new variant. But from what you know, what are some of the concerns we should have about this new variant?

JD:

So, most of what we know about Omicron at this point comes from the sequence of genes. We know that major vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are studying the effectiveness of their vaccines against the Omicron variant. And we can expect the data from these companies to be probably within a week to 10 days. One thing that is really important is that there have been 32 distinct mutations associated with a single gene known as “S” because it encodes the spike protein. The spike protein is important because it is found on the immune response and therefore the standard vaccine target. So that’s why it’s entirely possible that Omicron is what people call an escape variant.

In addition to these mutations that could confirm immune evasion, there is another interesting angle called S-Gene Target Failure. S, or spike, is just one of the genes targeted by PCR. And in some of those PCR tests, the S gene fails. We are therefore unable to detect the spike protein. And so when that happens what you have is a PCR test that says there is something special about this variant. I expect that many countries around the world will use S-Gene Target Failure to try to follow Omicron’s path during the outbreak, and I expect that here in the United States, we will mainly focused on genome sequencing.

CS:

So what does all of this mean for our listeners as we all head for the holidays?

JD:

You know Chris, the thing to remember is that the biggest threat in the United States is still the Delta variant. And we know the vaccine works great to protect against Delta. People who have not been vaccinated should be vaccinated if they are eligible. And then the other thing is that masks and physical distancing work against all variants.

CS:

Fair enough. Dr John Drake is Professor at UGA and Director of the University Center for Infectious Disease Ecology. Thanks for stopping by.

JD:

Thanks, Chris. It’s my pleasure.


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