The emergence of a new coronavirus variant—omicron—may provide another test for embattled colleges and universities, which have largely dodged waves of COVID-19 strains over the past 20 months.
Very little is known about this spinoff, except that it has been spotted now in the U.S. in California and in numerous countries, prompting global travel shutdowns to certain areas, most notably from South Africa. But whether it will provide a deeper threat than the delta variant or be able to evade vaccines is still not known. Public health experts across the U.S. are working to determine how powerful omicron can and will be.
Higher education, of course, is in the middle of these developments as both a source of research and a potential ground for transmission. While many institutions have done exceptionally well in preventing mass cases from erupting, there have been numerous smaller outbreaks. How they react now may be crucial to staying open and keeping staff, students and faculty safe. “There is still a lot more that we have to learn about not only this variant but other variants that will emerge over time,” says Dr. Philip Chan, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at Brown University. “I think some prudent, reasonable precautions make sense.”
That includes a battery of mitigation strategies. But it may not stop there. For the 2,500-plus institutions that have not imposed vaccine requirements, will they opt to mandate vaccines and boosters? Will they also decide to put on masks again?
To learn more about the omicron variant and its potential effects on the U.S. population and higher education, University Business sat down for a conversation with Chan, who also has been instrumental in assisting the state of Rhode Island in its response to COVID.
What do we know about omicron and its potential to pose threats across the U.S. and in higher ed?
It’s definitely a cause for concern but certainly not a reason to panic. What’s been concerning is this variant has 50 mutations that we hadn’t seen altogether before in a single variant. We know that some mutations are associated with known resistance and increased transmissibility. South Africa is seeing a surge upwards, where 100% of the viruses they’ve sequenced are due to omicron. There are still a lot of unknowns. It’s unknown if it is more infectious. It’s unknown if it does cause more severe disease. It’s unknown if the vaccines are less effective or other therapeutics are less effective.
How long will it take before we have a better understanding of vaccine effectiveness against omicron?
Probably three to four weeks. The major vaccine makers have released statements that they’re looking into the effectiveness of their respective vaccines against the omicron variant. There are other experts conducting lab experiments needed to test neutralizing antibodies and how effective past immunity and vaccine-induced immunity are against the variant.
How can colleges and universities defend against it?
We know what will work against this new variant, as has worked against all the previous variants—making sure you’re vaccinated, getting a booster (which is now recommended by the CDC), wearing a mask if you’re indoors where there are people around. Being conscious of ventilation and physical distancing. If you’re sick, stay home. Sort of back to the basics.
Should institutions that don’t have vaccine mandates consider mandating them now?
I’m a very strong supporter of vaccines, and I’m in favor of mandates to put this pandemic behind us and mitigate risk. We need to vaccinate everyone to achieve as high level of herd immunity as possible. Younger adults are at lower risk compared to other subsets of the population, but this pandemic is affecting us all. In older adults, we’ve seen tremendous morbidity and mortality. I understand that mandates are not popular, but we do mandate other vaccines of public health significance, like meningitis and hepatitis. I would strongly encourage institutions to consider it based on the data, the evidence and the science, which shows that vaccines are effective and safe.
How important is continued testing as students return to campus after winter break?
Testing is one of those key pillars. As much testing as you can do while background community rates are high makes sense. Also, it’s not like we’re going to be testing forever. We’re not going to be masking forever. But while community rates of COVID are high, it makes sense to be a little bit more aggressive, and especially with the omicron variant emerging. While there is circulating COVID, people should be tested routinely in higher-risk settings, and people should mask indoors where others are present.
What are your thoughts about this pandemic becoming endemic?
Among most experts at this point, there’s no doubt that it is going to become endemic, and it is already endemic. We’re seeing signs of that with the ups and downs [of cases], which is typical of other endemic viruses and respiratory viruses. That’s why when community rates are surging, we have to pay close attention and do things like testing and masking. We’re at a peak right now in many states. It makes sense to be more aggressive. When things get low and when it bottoms out, we can relax.
What are you currently working on there with regard to variants?
I’m very involved in the statewide response here. All states, including Rhode Island, do routine molecular surveillance of these variants. The genotyping of variants takes weeks. So by the time we identify a variant, we’re already behind, which has been a problem the entire pandemic. Most of us suspect that it’s already here.