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Omicron: What we know so far about the new COVID-19 variant

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Dr. Andre Campbell, Professor of Surgery of UCSF and Trauma Surgeon Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss what we know about the latest COVID-19 variant of concern.

Video transcript

KARINA CONTRERAS: And we will stay on the virus, on the variant, and bring in our next guest, Dr. Andre Campbell, Professor of Surgery of UCSF an ICU physician and trauma surgeon Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital thank you so much for your time today, sir. We have a lot of questions that we want to get to.

First of all, I want to ask you, what's the likelihood that this virus hasn't shown up here in the US? The president didn't make any mention of it. But how likely is it that it isn't here? And then if you can just talk us through-- the president says don't panic. What are the symptoms? What do we know about this virus so far?

ANDRE CAMPBELL: Well, thank you so much for having me on this morning. I appreciate it.

So the first thing is what do we know? As was said before, it was identified by scientists in Botswana. What they noticed is there was a huge upswing, both in Botswana and in South Africa, with respect to viral infections and hospitalizations. So it went from maybe a couple to several hundred to almost 1,000. And people were coming in with a new infection.

And the scientists identified this new variant, number one. So that's what we know so far.

The second thing is it's also been reported in other places like Belgium and the UK, other places. But I would say that this is-- that it gets around pretty fast. And we know that the initial infection, which was identified in Washington state and other places, was probably here before we thought so. So it may be here. But the reality is we've not identified it right now.

We only are testing about the single digits of specimens here for this new virus mutation. So it's a mutation. So instead of it having 20 mutations or 19 mutations like Delta, this one has about 30 to 40 in it. And that's why everybody's nervous about what's going on.

But the first thing is not to panic, make sure, number one, the message is, get vaccinated or get boosted, and get ready, because eventually it will come here. There's no question about that.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOUROS: In terms of symptoms and the difference though, between Omicron and Delta, Doctor, it sounds like the Delta variant caused more severe symptoms. There was elevated pulse rates. There were more hospitalizations. I mean, I know this is a relatively new variant here. But it seems as though, according to what doctors are telling us in South Africa, people came in with coughs, sore throats, body aches, fatigue. So is this perhaps a quicker-spreading variant but more mild when it comes to symptoms?

ANDRE CAMPBELL: Well, actually, we don't know. Remember, there were other variants before. There was the Mu variant. There was other variants. Alpha was the first one that developed. And then Delta came along. So Delta was worse with respect to hospitalizations. So the symptoms with Delta was rapidly increased respiratory rate, heart rate, fever, body aches, and then rapidly progressing to what's called respiratory failure. So that's when you can't breathe on your own. Therefore, you have to be in the hospital and the ICU.

And there's techniques we use to kind of keep you going with that. But that's really kind of the same sort of symptoms that this has, which we don't really know how severe it is. All we have is plenary reports. And that's why everybody's trying to say don't get anxious just yet about what's going on. Just be aware.

And do all the things that we want you to do in terms of public health.

KARINA CONTRERAS: Doctor--

ANDRE CAMPBELL: Go ahead.

KARINA CONTRERAS: Yes. Go ahead, sorry. Finish your thought.

ANDRE CAMPBELL: No, go ahead. I was just ending. So go ahead.

KARINA CONTRERAS: So Doctor, I wanted to ask you a question. So I have a booster shot scheduled later this week. And now, my thought process is, A, do I get it because it will give me some more immunity? Maybe it won't cover me completely, but it might protect me a little better. Or do I have in the back of my head sort of thought process that, should I wait a little bit because I would hate to have to then get a fourth shot, another booster for this particular variant? Obviously, we don't know if we need any changes to the current vaccine system that we have in place.

And then my other thought is that-- I know the mayor of New York City has said that everyone should now be wearing masks indoors as well. So what's your philosophy on that? Should people be masking up more? What's the protocol?

ANDRE CAMPBELL: So the first thing is, congratulations, you're going to get your booster this week. Go and get it, please, because you will be fully vaccinated. Remember, this is what we know. For Delta at six months since your last shot, your immunity very-- it goes down. So that's why it went from the protection of 90% down to 50%. And that's why that booster then brings you back up to 95%. And that's really what you want.

So go out. Get your boosters. And then two weeks after, you'll be fully vaccinated because your body will get revved up against it number one.

Number two, related to the masking-- and I think masking is going to be with us for the short term and maybe even the long term in terms of being in high-risk situations. Outdoors, probably not such a big deal, only if you're around huge numbers of people, those kinds of things. But if you're inside and you don't know-- because you don't know what everybody's vaccination status is, who's in the room with you.

I mean, remember, there are 50 million people who are not vaccinated. That's really the crowd that is really causing the reservoir for Delta and maybe Omicron to spread because what happens, they're unvaccinated. Their body basically is a reservoir. Basically, the virus is having a field day inside their immune system and has a chance to mutate, whereas when you're vaccinated, your body will have antibodies.

There's B cells. There's T cells, all of the things that are good that help you fight it. That's what you want to have. So that's why we have to get people vaccinated. The good thing is that five to 11-year-olds can get vaccinated now. So that's another 28 million kids who can get vaccinated.

So we're working on it. But we're slowing it. This is a clarion call to make sure that everybody gets vaccinated and to mask up, just to be safe, because masks work.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOUROS: Doctor, in terms of the US's response with this travel ban, which is really just looking at several countries in South Africa-- you've got Israel and Japan closing their borders to foreign travelers until they know more about this Omicron variant. Do you think that the US travel ban should be more aggressive at this point?

ANDRE CAMPBELL: Let me just tell you something that I think we all know is that the travel bans really don't work. They're basically a way just to kind of stop in place for a moment and to adjust. What they're trying to do is collect information about what's going on in South Africa with the variant.

So the next week or so-- because the reality is that people may be here with it. There was a plane that was going to Belgium where a large number of people were infected when they tested them. They were supposedly negative before they got on the plane. But they were positive when they got off. So what it means is they probably got it when they were down in South Africa. So that really is the thing that sort of stimulated this discussion about, let's try to get an understanding of what's happening here to kind of slow the spread.

And that's why countries have closed the borders because the reality is that, in the end, it's still going to get through because the virus is very resourceful. It can get through, even though we're trying to close our borders.

KARINA CONTRERAS: All right, Doctor. And the president saying the world has to make sure that it gets vaccinated to help halt the spread of this virus. All right, thank you. We will leave it there, Dr. Andre Campbell, Professor of Surgery of UCSF and ICU physician, trauma surgeon Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Thanks for your time again.

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