It's too soon to tell if Omicron's spread will help end Covid-19's pandemic phase, Fauci says, but he's hopeful

Originally Published: 18 JAN 22 03:23 ET
Updated: 18 JAN 22 06:21 ET

    (CNN) -- It's still too early to predict -- even pushing three years into the pandemic -- whether the endemic stage of the coronavirus being more manageable is near, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, as Covid-19 cases linger Tuesday around the record high and related disruptions continue.

"When you talk about whether or not Omicron -- because it's as highly transmissible but apparently not as pathogenic, for example, as Delta -- I would hope that that's the case," the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said Monday.

"But that would only be the case if we don't get another variant that eludes the immune response to the prior variant," Fauci told the Davos Agenda, a virtual event this week held by the World Economic Forum.

A disease that is endemic has a constant presence in a population but does not affect an alarmingly large number of people or disrupt society, as typically seen in a pandemic. Since Omicron is highly transmissible but less likely to cause as severe disease as some previous variants, it could mark a transition on the horizon to an endemic phase of the disease.

"We were fortunate" that Omicron did not share some of the same characteristics as Delta, Fauci said, "but the sheer volume of people who are getting infected overrides that rather less level of pathogenicity."

"It is an open question as to whether or not Omicron is going to be the live virus vaccination that everyone is hoping for because you have such a great deal of variability with new variants emerging," he said.

Early signs have suggested the latest Covid-19 wave in the United States is peaking -- or at least plateauing -- in parts of the Northeast. Still, cases of Covid-19 remain high due to Omicron's high transmissibility. The daily average of recorded infections Monday was just over 680,000, according to Johns Hopkins University data, substantially higher than peaks of last winter's surge.

Health care systems -- some facing critical staffing shortages -- have treated more Covid-19 patients in recent days than ever. At least 156,676 people in the US were hospitalized Monday with the virus, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Schools grapple with the Omicron surge

As cases and hospitalizations have spurred staffing shortages across the nation, some school districts -- from Paterson, New Jersey, to Mobile, Alabama -- have moved to virtual learning this week.

In Texas, all schools and offices in the Houston Independent School District will be closed Tuesday due to rising cases in the community, the school district announced on its website. Classes are expected to resume Wednesday.

The school district encouraged students and staff to take "this extra day to mitigate potential exposure."

Meantime, a mandate to wear masks in schools is under fire in one new state. Citing "individual liberty" and the availability of vaccines for K-12 students, newly inaugurated Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order stating parents will get to decide if their child must wear a mask in class, a departure from his predecessor's public health emergency order in August that masks were to be worn in schools.

Several districts in the Northern Virginia and metro Richmond area announced they will reject the latest order, set to begin January 24.

"Our layered prevention strategies have proven effective in keeping transmission rates low in our schools," said Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand in a letter to the school community.

"Universal mask use has proven effective in keeping Covid-19 transmission rates low in our schools and ensuring schools remain safe and open," a statement from Arlington Public Schools said about its decision.

And an email from Henrico County Public Schools to parents and guardians reads, "Mask use is a vital component of the division's layered prevention measures," while noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools and that federal law requires masks on school buses.

Progress on future vaccines moves forward

To further get ahead of variants, new vaccines are under development.

Moderna should have data available on its Omicron-specific Covid-19 vaccine in March, company CEO Stephane Bancel said Monday.

"It should be in the clinic in the coming weeks. And we're hoping in the March timeframe, we should be able to have data to share with regulators to figure out the next step forward," he said in a panel conversation at Davos.

A combined Covid-19 and flu booster shot from Moderna could also be available in some countries by fall 2023, Bancel said, but he cautioned the goal date is a "best case scenario."

Vaccine doses remain the most effective way to ward off severe Covid-19 complications, which remain a factor in the nation's recovery as Americans continue to die from the virus. The average number of deaths has exceeded 1,600 daily over the last week, according to Johns Hopkins data.

Booster doses have successfully demonstrated the ability to raise a person's antibody levels months after initial inoculations, helping to keep those at higher risk out of the hospital.

Early data out of Israel suggests a fourth dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines can elicit an increase in antibodies -- more than what has been seen following a third dose -- but it still might not be enough to protect against possible breakthrough infections caused by Omicron.

In December, Israel started trialing a fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccines for healthy participants ahead of a roll out of the additional booster shot to at-risk populations -- marking the first study of its kind among healthy people getting a fourth dose.

"I think that the decision to allow the fourth vaccine to vulnerable populations is probably correct," Dr. Gili-Regev Yochay, director of Infection Prevention Control Unit at the Sheba Medical Center, said Monday of the data. "It may give a little bit of benefit but probably not enough to support the decision to give it to all of the population, I would say."

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