Alaska’s virus hunters are looking for signs of the coronavirus’s omicron variant in batches of tests from around the state, as health officials brace for another possible wave of infections.
But there are still many questions about omicron, what risk it poses to Alaskans and when we’ll see it here.
Among those watching and reading health bulletins closely is Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink.
Zink says even though a lot is still unknown about omicron, its many mutations compared to other variants is catching researchers attention.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Anne Zink: With this variant, it was a very big divergence, not from delta, not from alpha, but really kind of a very a unique set of new groupings, of mutations, that were different. And to see so many in one variant type was what was really surprising. And I think that’s really why it’s been labeled a variant of concern. We don’t know yet what this means clinically. We don’t know what this is going to mean for vaccines, for treatment, if it’s going to make people more ill, if it’s going to make people less ill. We’re hearing some early reports that it may make people very mildly ill, just really fatigued. But we have lots more to learn in that space. But it’s just so different from what we saw before in areas that are kind of key to both vaccination, as well as for treatment, particularly monoclonal antibodies, that has made it of concern. And so that’s why it’s being watched carefully.
Casey Grove: I guess the one that people here are pretty familiar with is the delta variant, and that put Alaska at the top of the list for the highest rate of infection in the country. There was this huge wave of cases here. Is there any reason to think that when omicron gets here, things won’t be the same, that it won’t drive a huge surge?
AZ: Again, I think it’s a whole series of unknowns. So South Africa experienced a large delta wave surge. And then the cases came down really precipitously, and they’ve been having very low case counts. They started to see an uptick in the cases. And they were sequencing those cases in a very similar way that we do and saw that the virus had really changed and was very different. We’re clearly seeing cases come down in Alaska. I think we’re really entering a time of uncertainty from an epidemiological standpoint. We have a lot of travel coming up with the holidays, as we are seeing people kind of just become increasingly fatigued with COVID. So it’s a little bit of unknown, like, because we just experienced this big surge, are we going to have less of a surge if we were to get this variant in? We also are much more vaccinated than South Africa. South Africa is at about 24% vaccination. So how much is our previous wave, plus our vaccine rates, going to help protect us with a surge of this variant? If it does really turn out to be highly transmissible, move quickly, is yet to be determined. There’s good reason to think that both previous infection, as well as protection from vaccination, will help protect us with this variant, even though it is quite different. And it is part of the reason that given waning immunity, the CDC made changes to the recommendations, now saying that everyone 18 and above should get boostered now, given the change in this variant.
CG: What’s going on with the sequencing efforts to detect omicron is interesting. Can you tell me about what those folks are doing? And is the state stepping up its efforts to sequence for different variants?
AZ: Sequencing is a lot of work and it takes a long time. It takes about two weeks from when we get the sample to be able to fully sequence it. And we can’t sequence every sample we get in, either because of resources or just the sample quality, sometimes the sample quality isn’t good enough to be able to sequence. We have been working with people all across the state to try to get samples sent in to us. The goal isn’t to sequence everyone’s test, it really doesn’t matter from an individual perspective, which variant you may or may not have, for the most part. But it really does matter from a larger public health perspective. And because the sequencing data could take longer to get back then you could really act upon. So, say, I get COVID-19, I’m not going to be able to have that information back in a timely manner to figure out, you know, different treatment modalities. And so it’s really a larger public health perspective that we think about which variant we have.
CG: Gotcha. I know we’re pretty early into this omicron variant, and we haven’t actually detected that in Alaska yet. But I’ve definitely heard from people that are frustrated that it doesn’t even look like we’re getting close to the end of this pandemic, especially with this recent news. What do you say to people like that?
AZ: Yeah, I think it’s exhausting and it’s frustrating and people are tired. I think we forget how, you know, since the beginning of time, it’s been a battle and a competition between viruses, bacteria and us, and in different organisms. I think we’ve really lived in this golden age where we get sick, and we can expect an antibiotic to take care of it or a vaccine to prevent it. And I think this is just a reminder that viruses and bacteria continue to change and we have to be resilient. We have to continue to learn and respond. I think it’s important to not be overwhelmed by the new information. We have tools. We know what works and what doesn’t work. There are some new unknowns with the omicron variant. But there are many knowns. We know that distancing helps we know that masking can make a big difference. We know that smaller groups can make a big difference. We know that testing is an important tool to identify cases. We think that all the testing modules that we have right now, antigen, molecular PCR, will still detect this variant. So the tests that you have are going to be useful. And I think that while it’s exhausting and frustrating, I would just encourage people to continue to look at the winds and remember that we’re not powerless over this pandemic. It’s not going away anytime soon, and so we need to just learn how to continue to navigate it just like we navigate icy roads. We have storms that come every winter. We have this pandemic, it’s still here, no pandemic lasts forever. This will get better over time, it will become endemic eventually. But how many people we lose along the way really is up to us.
CG: Having said that, though, what worries you the most about this? I mean, what keeps you up at night when you think about this omicron variant?
AZ: I think part of it is what you just mentioned, the exhaustion, that people feel. How isolated we have become as groups of people, to work together in this space. You know, I admitted a super sick 35-year-old over the weekend with COVID-19. And just healthy and fairly young. And I think what keeps me up is the individual stories, individual patients that I continue to see so sick from this. And if we get a variant that spreads really, really easily and the vaccines are less efficacious, and the monoclonal (antibodies) don’t work as well or other treatment options don’t work as well, we’ll just see more sick people. And so we’re really relying on the public to really help care for their health, their family’s health, their community’s health and working together, which is hard, which is hard to dig deep, you know, so many months into this response.