UCSF virologist says it's urgent to collect data on omicron variant

Moderna's CEO Stéphane Bancel says he expects there will be a "material drop" in the efficacy of current vaccines against the newly discovered omicron variant. 

Those comments, published in the Financial Times this week, prompted a drop in U.S. stock futures amidst concern about the omicron variant's potential to drive another global spike in COVID cases similar to the highly-transmissible delta variant's spread.

Spain announced its first confirmed case Monday and the omicron variant has now spread to five continents, being detected in Europe, Canada, southern Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Genetic sequencing shows the omicron variant has 50 mutations including some mutations known to allow the virus to bind to human cells more tightly and cause high transmission.

UCSF virologist Nadia Roan says that is the reason for the urgency to collect data.

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"It's theoretically concerning because it has a lot of mutations more than delta, for example, and it has a lot of mutations within the spike protein, which is the target that most of our vaccines have," said Roan, a UCSF associate professor and investigator at the Gladstone Institute.

The World Health Organization sounded an alarm Monday calling the global risk "very high" and saying there could be severe consequences.

So far, there have been no deaths from the omicron mutation. In South Africa, patients have had mild symptoms, but the spread has been mostly people under 30-years-old so far.

Moderna announced Monday it is testing existing vaccines and it could take 2-3 months to produce an omicron vaccine booster if it is needed.

Health officials say that is why it's important to for the 80 million unvaccinated Americans to get shots and for people to get covid boosters, which likely will provide some protection, even against mutations.

"My guess is there will probably be some drop in the but there are other components that shoudl be maintained, particularly the t-cells that are more resistant to viral mutations," said Professor Roan.

"I've been receiving a lot of calls from constituents obviously scared about the omicron variant," said San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa. He says the callers are asking about getting boosters and counties need to begin preparing in case there's a spike in demand for vaccine shots or need for a new omicron booster.

"We're going to try to create more capacity. Now because of this variant, you're going to start seeing people wanting this booster more," said Canepa. "So the county of San Mateo, we have to double down on staffing."  

Health officials say the omicron mutation also points to the need for more vaccine doses overseas. The cases in South Africa were mostly among unvaccinated people on a continent with a vaccination rate of less than 10%.

"We need to get more of the world vaccinated. New variants come across when chances to highlights we need to get more of the world vaccinated," said Roan.

Roan says one bit of good news is that COVID tests are able to detect the omicron variant, making it easier to identify and track.

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at jana.katsuyama@fox.com and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.