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Dr. Francis Collins on what we know about the Omicron variant so far

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There is officially a new COVID-19 variant that the World Health Organization is classifying as one of concern. Today, the WHO put a Greek letter on it, dubbing it the omicron variant. There's still a lot of - there's still a lot scientists don't know about it, but since it was first identified in South Africa this month, it's also been reported in Europe and Asia. And the U.S. will ban travel from South Africa and other neighboring countries starting on Monday. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, joins us now to give us the update.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Glad to join you.

CORNISH: So you've been in touch with officials in South Africa. We now have the information from the WHO. What have you learned about this new variant?

COLLINS: Well, yeah, I've been on Zoom calls and phone calls all day trying to learn everything that we currently know. It's a troubling variant. It has more than 50 mutations, the largest number of differences from the original virus that we've seen so far. And that, of course, makes you worry that the things that we've been doing to fight this off might not work quite as well with omicron.

CORNISH: Meaning social distancing and masking...

COLLINS: By the way, a lot of people are looking up...

CORNISH: ...Or vaccines?

COLLINS: I'm sorry?

CORNISH: When you say that makes you worry, does that mean you have concerns about the efficacy of the current vaccines available?

COLLINS: That would be the concern, although, let me be clear, there is no data at the present time to indicate that the current vaccines would not work. So this is just looking at those mutations and going, boy, we'd better really check this out.

CORNISH: This is not the first variant. What have you learned from dealing with past variants that could be helpful here?

COLLINS: Very important question, Audie. What we have learned is that vaccines work really well against all the other variants - alpha, beta, delta. And it also is the case that getting boosted makes the vaccine work even better against those other variants. So message for people right now - if you haven't gotten boosted and you're six months out from Pfizer or Moderna or two months from J&J, this would be a really good time to sign up and take care of that in the next few days.

CORNISH: But why are there such red flags, then, for this latest variant?

COLLINS: Well, two things. One is that it seems to be spreading very rapidly in South Africa and other neighboring countries, which is a sign of something that maybe is particularly contagious. And the other is the fact that it has so many mutations, more than we've ever seen, which is, again, a red flag that it might be more difficult for our immune systems to recognize if we get exposed to it, even if we've seen the vaccine before.

CORNISH: Could the U.S. and other developed nations done more to get vaccines to parts of the world that had less access? And I ask this because the idea of vaccinations, which - was to prevent the kinds of mutations that could lead to more dangerous variants.

COLLINS: That's absolutely right. And we in the U.S. have done more than any other country to try to achieve that. We've already sent out more than 250 million doses and committed to more than a billion more; more than any other country. And we do need to do that just for self-interest, not to mention the fact that we are fortunate to have resources and we should be reaching out to all of our brothers and sisters all over the world.

CORNISH: But the U.S. is already on boosters while these countries - I think the vaccination rate in South Africa is in the sort of 35% range. I mean, is it better to be trying to prevent this kind of thing in other countries than to kind of keep dosing ourselves with vaccines?

COLLINS: Well, I talked to the folks in South Africa about this. They say at the present time, their problem is not access to vaccines. They have vaccines. They have the same problem we seem to have with people being hesitant to take them. And that is a terrible tragedy for our country and for theirs as well.

CORNISH: Speaking of which, in the U.S., COVID cases are up around 30%, at least compared to a month ago. I know you've been out promoting boosters, you've - as you've been doing here, singing the praises of vaccines and also vaccine mandates. But to really keep cases under control this holiday season and through the winter, where does the national strategy need to head from here?

COLLINS: Well, we need to do everything possible, Audie, to convince people who are still on the fence to roll up their sleeves if they haven't yet gotten immunized. And of course, mandates is one way that we're accomplishing that, although I think most of us wish we didn't have to do mandates when the evidence is so compelling. And booster wise, again, getting messages like this in front of people.

We're working, though, against a terrible onslaught of misinformation and, frankly, disinformation that's being spread by people with other agendas, which causes people to be confused and fearful in a situation where the data is actually really clear about what you should do. These vaccines are safe and effective, and the boosters really work.

CORNISH: We just have a minute left. What's your sense of what it would take to get to an endemic phase of this pandemic - right? - where the virus is still circulating but not disrupting everyday life?

COLLINS: Yeah. We'd need to see cases, hospitalizations and deaths drop way down from where they are right now. We're still losing a thousand people a day in the United States. That would mean getting immunization levels very much higher than they are and also practicing those other simple things in terms of mitigation, like mask-wearing indoors when you're around other unvaccinated people.

We have, of course, gotten to the point where a lot of people are tired of hearing all that, but the virus is not tired of us. And so we have to double down on that and keep these messages coming. We're all in this together.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Thank you for this update. Thank you for your expertise and time.

COLLINS: Thank you. It's nice to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ FERDINAND SONG, "40'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.