The Omicron variant has a 'record' number of mutations that may hinder vaccine effectiveness, NIH director says

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  • NIH Director Francis Collins said Sunday that the Omicron variant could present challenges to existing vaccines.

  • The new variant has a "record" number of mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that attaches to human cells, he said.

  • He added that people should still get the current vaccines and boosters.

The newly discovered Omicron variant of the coronavirus has a "record" number of mutations that could hinder vaccine effectiveness, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said in an interview Sunday, adding that it was too soon to tell if that's the case.

"We do know that this is a variant that has a lot of mutations – like 50 of them, and more than 30 of those in the spike protein, which is the part off the virus that attaches to your human cells if you get infected," Collins said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."

"That is a new record in terms of the number of mutations," he added. "It does make you worry, therefore, that it's a sufficiently different virus, that it might not respond as well to protection from the vaccines. But we don't know that."

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus was first identified by genetic sequencing in South Africa, though the variant has since been identified in numerous countries, including Israel, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. While it hasn't yet been identified in the United States, public-health experts have said it's likely to be identified soon.

The World Health Organization on Friday labeled the new variant one of "concern," though public-health experts have stressed that it's still too early what impact the variant will have on efforts to combat the pandemic globally.

Collins said Sunday it would take around two to three weeks to determine if antibodies from existing COVID-19 vaccines would be effective in protecting against the Omicron variant. Vaccine manufactures, including Moderna and Pfizer, have said they will work to alter existing vaccines should the new variant require they make modifications.

Collins on Sunday encouraged people to get the existing vaccines, and booster shoots which recently became available to all previously vaccinated adults in the US.

"It's clear that in all the previous examples of variants, the vaccines have worked to provide protection and the boosters have provided especially strong protection against things like Delta," he said.

"Given that history, we expect that most likely the current vaccines will be sufficient to provide protection and especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection," he added.

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