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Omicron variant: ‘There probably are cases’ in the U.S. but not yet in large numbers, professor says

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Yale Radiology and Public Health Professor Dr. Howard Forman joins Yahoo Finance Live to break down the timeline of when officials should learn more about the Omicron variant and what other regulatory policies may be put in place to handle American case surges.

Video transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. We did hear from President Biden at the White House earlier today, reassuring Americans amid concerns around this new omicron COVID variant. The president saying that he believes cases of that variant will be detected in the US sooner or later, but he says the US has the resources to, number one, contain or at least control the variants. And he also used that as an opportunity to really push Americans who have not been vaccinated to do so.

Let's bring in Dr. Howard Forman, Yale radiology and public health professor. We've also got Anjalee Khemlani joining in on the conversation. Doctor, first of all, I'm not sure if you heard from the president, but he did say, in fact, that he doesn't believe at this stage that new measures, as in an updated vaccine, will be necessary to fight this new variant based on what we know right now. Do you agree with that assessment?

HOWARD FORMAN: Yeah, I think that's a proper statement. I think more clearly, though, the premise is usually prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And I think that's where we're are right now. We should be doing everything we can to prepare for the worst. But we also should know that we have so little information right now that we should not panic.

JARED BLIKRE: And doctor, we just heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci at the same meeting. And there is this rough timetable of about two weeks to gather more information. Is this realistic? And what exactly at the end of two weeks should we know by that time?

HOWARD FORMAN: Yeah, we're going to get information over that two weeks. It's not going to happen just at two weeks. Over the next several days, we'll get more, you know, genomic surveillance throughout the world. I expect we'll find cases in the United States as well. We'll begin to understand what the prognosis is for patients that have the omicron variant. Is it milder? Is it more severe? Nobody knows right now. We can hope for it to be milder.

We're going to start to learn about whether current vaccines or prior infection can convey immunity to individuals such that they may have less severe disease. That would be really important information to find out. And we'll start to get information both from our modeling community, as well as from on the ground data points that tell us if this is, in fact, more transmissible or somehow evading prior infection and/or, but either way, to figure out whether this is going to spread rapidly over time.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Doctor, Anjalee here. Good to speak with you again. I wonder from a public health perspective and from policy perspective, should the United States be looking at lockdowns? President Joe Biden did say it's off the table for now, but considering if it is, in fact, more transmissible or more severe, should that be on the table?

HOWARD FORMAN: Look, I think that you have to consider every single public health measure on its own. I think lockdowns have proven to be extremely divisive. And even in areas where they seemingly have been successful, there's a sense of burnout at a certain point. So I don't anticipate anything approaching prior lockdowns. But do I think that there are going to be areas where mask mandates had seemingly gone away, and they're going to have to be reconsidered? Do I think that people would be prudent to put masks on again? It's certainly prudent to get vaccinated now.

In all likelihood, the vaccines will continue to convey at least some protective advantage. So getting vaccinated right now still has an advantage. And quite frankly, what we still underuse is testing and isolation and people who either are concerned because of symptoms or in a setting where they're at a high risk of transmitting to high risk individuals, getting tested on a regular basis and isolating either with symptoms or a positive test would be very prudent at this time.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And I wonder also on looking forward at the winter surge that was expected, we started seeing the uptick. Any sense of whether or not, A, the variant is going to be a part of that? Are we looking at conflating issues right now? Or are we still largely looking at just what was sort of expected in terms of the winter weather and seeing a surge there?

HOWARD FORMAN: Yeah, look, we have very poor genomic surveillance compared to what we should have. But we have vastly better genomic surveillance than we did six and nine months ago. So I'm confident that we don't have a massive omicron outbreak right now causing the bumps that we're seeing in a lot of areas. That could change in a matter of days or weeks. So I think people have to be able to be a little cautious.

The increase in cases in Connecticut is not due to the omicron variant. There probably are cases in the United States right now. But they're not at sufficient numbers to be having a significant effect. We need to watch that. And we also need, quite frankly, to invest in more infrastructure domestically to do genomic surveillance at the level that a lot of our peer nations are already doing it.

AKIKO FUJITA: And doctor, you talked about the importance of mask wearing. We also heard the president really urging Americans who haven't gotten their vaccines yet to go out and do so. I want you to listen to what he had to say and then get your thoughts on the other side.

JOE BIDEN: We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed. But so that we are prepared, if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.

AKIKO FUJITA: And doctor, the concern anytime we hear about these new variants are those who are not vaccinated, who are hesitant, who say, look, if you've got a new variant, there may have to be a new vaccine. Why do I need to go out and get my vaccine right now? We've already got more than 70% of Americans vaccinated. But I wonder if you can speak to that hesitancy that still exists there and what you would tell somebody who says, well, how do I know that the vaccine I get today is going to protect me from this new variant?

HOWARD FORMAN: Yeah, right now, in the United States, we're still having over 1,000 deaths a day. And the vast, vast majority of those are due to people that are under vaccinated or unvaccinated. I work in the emergency room about two or three days a week as a radiologist, but I get to see the worst cases of COVID. And I can tell you, even at this point, the cases we're seeing are either in unvaccinated people or in people who are vaccinated and didn't get a booster from nine, 10, 11 months ago. I myself got my booster two weeks ago today and very happy I did that. I would suggest anybody that's unvaccinated get vaccinated now.

Anybody that's more than six months out from an mRNA vaccine or two months out from Johnson & Johnson should be getting their booster shot. And we all should be, as I said, planning, hoping for the best, but planning for the worst. And that means that we should expect that there may be an omicron booster in place sometime in the April range. And at that time, we'll consider yet another shot if necessary. But we are far away from knowing whether that's the case yet.

JARED BLIKRE: Well, we appreciate your time and your thoughts here. And by the way, good timing on that booster shot, doctor. Dr. Howard Forman, Yale radiology and public health professor.

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