Quotes from Experts

COVID-19 omicron variant and the holiday season

SciLine reaches out to our network of scientific experts and poses commonly asked questions about newsworthy topics. Reporters can use the video clips, audio, and comments below in news stories, with attribution to the scientist who made them.

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December 17, 2021


How might people plan to safely gather for the holidays, given what we currently know about the delta and omicron variants?


Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.

“I think the most important thing about gathering for the holidays is to first, keep the size of the groups very small—minimum number of people—and also to maximize the amount of immunity in the group. That means getting vaccinated and ideally having booster shots as well.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.
Head of the laboratory of retrovirology, Rockefeller University; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Paul A. Offit, M.D.


“Well, I think what we’ve learned about the delta variant is it’s highly contagious, and the omicron variant is even more contagious. So, I think when we gather for the holidays, just use your common sense. The minute you walk outside you are taking some risks, so you need to do everything you can to mitigate that risk. At the very least be vaccinated. Even if you’re fully vaccinated, I think if you’re around an older person it would be reasonable to wear a mask and do the best you can to social distance. But it’s really largely a matter of common sense. Omicron is highly contagious, so be careful.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul A. Offit, M.D.
Professor of pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D.


“Omicron is a real threat. Omicron is much more transmissible, and it’s capable of infecting people who have been vaccinated or previously infected. If you’re going to get together with relatives and loved ones, test before you come together. And wear masks in public. And try to social distance in other circumstances.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D.
Professor of environmental health sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

David Topham, Ph.D.


“For this Christmas holiday, I only have two sons, they’re both in college and they’ll be coming home for the holiday. So my advice is to really consider whether you need to get together at all, and if you do, keep the number of people small. It also might be a good idea to get yourselves tested a day or two before coming together, and, most importantly, get your booster dose. My whole family’s had their third dose, so we feel pretty well protected.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

David Topham, Ph.D.
Professor, department of microbiology and Immunology, University of Rochester Medical Center

What do we know about booster shot efficacy against omicron?


Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.

“We know from laboratory studies that having a booster on top of the regular vaccine series dramatically increases the level of neutralizing antibodies that individuals have. And, at least preliminarily, that is translating into the incoming clinical evidence that it protects against infection and against disease to a significantly greater extent than does the initial vaccine series.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.
Head of the laboratory of retrovirology, Rockefeller University; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Paul A. Offit, M.D.


“The central question is what do we want from these vaccines. If what we want from these vaccines is protection against serious illness—meaning the kind of illness that causes you to go to a doctor, go to the hospital, go to the intensive care unit—it looks for all the world like two doses of these mRNA vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, protects against serious illness. However, protection against mild illness does not appear to be as good with two doses of vaccine against the omicron variant. So there you could argue that if you wanted to be protected additionally against mild or low/moderate illness, it makes sense to get a booster dose.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul A. Offit, M.D.
Professor of pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D.


“Some early studies—one in particular that just came out—seem to indicate that boosting is not providing the level of protection we’d like to see against omicron, and that people’s neutralizing antibodies are compromised in fighting off infection from the omicron variant. That said, neutralizing antibodies are not the whole picture. There are other components of the immune system, such as reactive T cells, memory B cells, that are important portions of it that may actually support a more effective immune response. We don’t know. That’s the answer right now. But we’re concerned.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D.
Professor of environmental health sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

How will scientists know if new vaccine formulations are necessary for omicron boosters? Is this likely, given currently available data?


Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.

“We’ll know whether new vaccine formulations are necessary, hopefully in the coming weeks and months. Really I think what’s critical is what the clinical outcome is of infections in people who have previously been vaccinated. If the vaccines are successful in really keeping people out of the hospital and keeping them alive, then it may be that we actually don’t need new vaccines to tackle omicron variants specifically. But we really just have to wait and see.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.
Head of the laboratory of retrovirology, Rockefeller University; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Paul Offit, M.D.


“We should be reassured by the fact, for each of the three variants that have come into this country—most recently the delta variant—protection afforded by these vaccines has been excellent protecting against serious illness. I think in all likelihood that will also be true for omicron. But if it’s not true, if we find that vaccination does not protect against serious disease caused by the omicron variant, then I think we’re going to need an omicron-specific vaccine.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul A. Offit, M.D.
Professor of pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

David Topham, Ph.D.


“The currently available data says that our existing vaccine is effective against all the variants as long as you have that third dose. So, there’s no evidence yet to suggest that we need a new form of vaccine. Now as much as the virus is changing so quickly, that answer could change quickly as well. It may well turn out that we do need to get a booster dose with a variant. And I know the vaccine manufacturers already have these vaccines in the works so that they’re ready to go should they have to be put into production.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

David Topham, Ph.D.
Professor, department of microbiology and Immunology, University of Rochester Medical Center

What do we still need to learn about omicron?


Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.

“I think the key pieces of information we need to learn about omicron are really twofold. One is what is the clinical outcome of omicron infection in people who have either previously been infected, previously been vaccinated, or both. That’s the first piece of information. The second is how efficiently is omicron transmitted among people who have had a boosted vaccine regimen.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D.
Head of the laboratory of retrovirology, Rockefeller University; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Paul A. Offit, M.D.


“There are several things we need to learn about omicron. First of all, if you look at people who have neither been naturally infected or vaccinated who are then infected with omicron, is this virus more virulent or less virulent? I mean more or less likely to cause dangerous illness than the previous variants? Number one. Number two is, for people who have been vaccinated, does it make a difference whether you’ve gotten three doses versus two doses of an mRNA-containing vaccine? There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to learn that information, really within the next few weeks, because this virus is clearly highly contagious and spreading in the United States.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Paul A. Offit, M.D.
Professor of pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D.


“The early evidence out of South Africa suggests that this variant may be milder. We’re seeing that in that a lot of the people who are in hospital who are diagnosed with it have come in actually for other procedures or purposes. We also see that there’s less rates of ventilator use. Now, whether this holds and applies to other populations will have to be seen. The critical issue is whether the infection hospitalization rate and the infection fatality rate are lower for omicron than they were for the other variants. If so, that works to our benefit. However, because it’s so transmissible and capable of apparently infecting people who’ve been vaccinated or previously infected, we may see a real spike in cases very rapidly over the next four to six weeks in the U.S., just as they’ve seen in South Africa and they’re now seeing in the U.K. and other places.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D.
Professor of environmental health sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

David Topham, Ph.D.


“The most important thing for us to learn right now, a lot of people are starting to say it only causes mild disease. We only know the kind of disease it causes from people who’ve been vaccinated. We don’t have data on people who’ve never been vaccinated and get exposed to omicron. I think once we have more of that data we’ll be able to make a more accurate statement about how pathogenic this virus is. I think the vaccine immunity is blunting some of the disease that this virus can cause.” (Posted December 17, 2021 | Download Video)

David Topham, Ph.D.
Professor, department of microbiology and Immunology, University of Rochester Medical Center

Creative Commons LicenseThe text and video on this page are licensed as Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0. Journalists are free to use any text or video on this page with or without attribution to SciLine.

Paul Bieniasz, Ph.D., head of the laboratory of retrovirology, Rockefeller University; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Dr. Bieniasz is a virologist who conducts research of a variety of viruses including SARS-CoV-2. He reports serving as an advisory board member for Pfizer (for which he has received compensation).

Paul A. Offit, M.D., professor of pediatrics, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

None.

Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D., professor of environmental health sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Dr. Shaman and Columbia University disclose partial ownership of SK Analytics. Dr. Shaman discloses consulting for Business Networking International.

David Topham, Ph.D., professor, department of microbiology and Immunology, University of Rochester Medical Center

Dr. Topham researches respiratory virus infections and immunity. He currently serves on the scientific advisory board of Versatope, a startup vaccine manufacturer focused on influenza vaccines. Dr. Topham has also consulted for Genentech on influenza antiviral medications.