NIH Director Francis Collins said Sunday that it is likely to be two to three weeks before there will be key answers about the new Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus.
Speaking to host Trace Gallagher on “Fox News Sunday,” Collins said there are many unknowns at this point, including the severity of Omicron, how contagious it is and how effective current vaccines and treatments will be against this variant, which has surfaced in Africa in recent days and which, Collins noted, seems to be spreading quickly.
“This is early enough that it’s hard to be sure we know the answers,” Collins said. “That‘s what a lot of us are spending our time on. Over the last three days, I think I've been on Zoom calls and phone calls pretty much continuously. We do know this is a variant that has a lot of mutations, like 50 of them.”
Collins said the mutations suggest that the new variant could be very different from its predecessors, raising the possibility that it could evade protections against Covid that had come through vaccines and antibodies.
The director of the National Institutes of Health said: “We need to find that out. To be honest though, that‘s going to take two, three weeks, in both laboratory and field studies, to figure out the answer. That is what all of us as scientists want to know.“
The Biden administration and other governments have been sufficiently alarmed by the new variant to restrict travel from South Africa and some of its neighbors.
Gallagher noted that early infections in Africa seemed to be mild, but Collins said it was too early to know if that would prove to be the case.
“Initial cases are mostly young people, who tend to have mild infections anyway,“ Collins said. “We need more data there before we can say confidently that this is not a severe version of the virus. But we should find that out in the next couple weeks.“
Collins said he hoped the new variant would be “one more wake-up call” for those who have yet to be vaccinated.
“It’s clear that in all the previous examples of variants, the vaccines have worked to provide protection,” Collins said.
He added: “The vaccines are your seat belt. Use them.”