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FIU's Dr. Aileen Marty On Omicron Variant: 'It Looks Like It's Going To Be Very Significantly Virulent And Very Transmissible'

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - Florida International University's infectious disease specialist, Dr. Aileen Marty sat down Wednesday evening with CBS4's Lauren Pastrana and Eliott Rodriguez to discuss the new coronavirus variant Omicron, which is causing worldwide concern.

Rodriguez: "What makes the Omicron variant different?"

Dr. Marty: "So, let's start out with where did it come from. The ancestor of this particular virus was detected actually in May. It just didn't have as many of the changes as it currently does."

"That was called the C. 1.2. and that particular one acquired a series of other mutations. So, there's over 50 mutations in the virus, 32 of them in the spike alone, which include deletions and insertions that have changed 15 of the amino acids of the spike in critical places. In places that allow the S1 and S2 to open up easier."

"That makes it much easier for the virus, to fuse with ourselves and get into ourselves, which is an indicator of transmissibility."

"Also, these important changes in the spike means that things like monoclonal antibodies have a very fixed shape attacking a very fixed shape molecule, won't work as well, as they have against the delta."

"So, but what about vaccines? Well, in terms of vaccination, that's a very different story, because when you get vaccinated, you're forming memory cells, and you form a number of different kinds of memory cells."

"And if you're talking about antibodies, the memory cells that you form are three levels, if you will. One, is like graduate school ones, you know, undergraduate, and one is an associate degree."

"The ones that went to graduate school are very specific for the actual vaccine product, they'll work immediately and they'll call themselves and get to it, but you actually want the other ones, the ones that went to college."

"The ones that went to college and those with the associate degrees that have more flexibility. Those will adapt very quickly. They're already trained, but they just need a little bit of extra training, and they'll adapt to the new virus."

"That's very different from the monoclonal antibodies, and that happens in your body. And that's why people who are fully vaccinated, like the individual who manifested this in California today, because they have enough antibodies to not go into having to be likely to have severe disease, and they adapt very quickly, they have the cells ready to adapt."

Pastrana: "So that severity. It seems like the vaccine is helping that person in California. Symptoms so far, not too severe. Is that enough for you to breathe a sigh of relief or is it still really too easy or early to tell? We just heard another expert say they still need to know more about the virulence and how deadly this might be."

Marty: "That's right. There's a lot of controversy, but the reality is that from the molecular structure, it looks like it's going to be very significantly virulent and very transmissible."

"That's bad news, we already have real-world data showing that in South Africa, it's replacing at an enormous rate, the Delta variant. So, it's proving to be much more contagious than the Delta variant."

"In terms of the people who've gotten it so far, a large percentage of the people that have gotten it have been very young. And so, they are already more likely to have mild disease, we don't know the full spectrum."

"And if you're only looking at people who are fully vaccinated, that's not going to tell you the whole picture of a society where there are in the United States, for example, more than 60 million people who have not been vaccinated, and they're not ready to face something like this."

Rodriguez: "Dr. Marty, I want to know about this case in California. So, this person had mild symptoms, and you're saying the fact that the person was fully vaccinated may have contributed to that? What if that person had been boosted? Because we know the person had not received the booster. Would that have made an even bigger difference?"

Marty: "Yes, absolutely. Every time you get a booster, you create more of those three levels of educated B cells. And so, that individual would have had that many more already ready-to-go antibodies, plus the ability to adapt even better and may not have manifested any disease whatsoever. So, the boosting really is an important thing for all of us to do."

Pastrana: "I remember a few months back when we were talking about the Delta variant, which seems like a distant memory at this point, as we deal with Omicron. But we said or we heard from many medical experts that said, if more people get vaccinated, these variants will slow down. But here we are still dealing with this new variant can we expect to see more if these vaccination numbers don't continue to go up?"

Marty: "We'll see. That's the problem is as long as there's enough human fodder for this virus, it will continue to be able to mutate and cause more problems and even though a very significant portion of humans have been vaccinated, it's very uneven. And if you look at Africa, for example, overall, we have a very low in the entire continent percent vaccinated. Actually, South Africa has one of the higher percent vaccinations in Africa. But that's not enough. And we've detected one in California, there are probably others already here in the United States that we simply haven't detected.

Rodriguez: "And this is a sign that this is a global pandemic affecting the entire world. We're all connected. Dr. Marty bad, you wanted to add something?"

Marty: "Yeah, I think one important thing to talk about is the conference that was held today, internationally agreeing that there's going to be a global response in the future for these kinds of things and hopefully, get politics out of it and focus on what we need to focus when something is attacking the human race."

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