Omicron Variant Detected in Erie County, UB Scientists Report

Donald Yergeau and Jennifer Surtees.

Donald Yergeau (left) is associate director of genomic technologies at the CBLS; Jennifer Surtees is associate professor of biochemistry and co-director of UB’s Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome.

Published December 22, 2021

The highly transmissible omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has been detected in Erie County, University at Buffalo scientists and Erie County health officials reported today.

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“We expect that this variant will have the strongest impact on people most vulnerable to COVID-19 – unvaccinated or immunocompromised. ”
Clinical Professor of Pediatrics

The variant was found in virus samples, analyzed by a UB team that has been sequencing the virus in the region, of Western New Yorkers who tested positive this month.

“Based on what other countries and other parts of New York State are experiencing, the omicron variant is more transmissible than previous SARS-CoV-2 viral strains,” said Erie County Commissioner of Health Gale Burstein, MD.

“Whether this variant causes more severe illness or not, we expect that this variant will have the strongest impact on people most vulnerable to COVID-19 – unvaccinated or immunocompromised,” added Burstein, who is also a clinical professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. “This is all the more reason to use all the tools in our toolkit to protect the most vulnerable in our community, with vaccination, mask wearing and other interventions.”

The omicron variant was detected by the same team of researchers from the Jacobs School that reported the arrival of the delta variant in Erie County in June, as well as other variants of concern. Led by Jennifer Surtees, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry, the team includes her colleagues at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences; together, they have been conducting the only genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples in Western New York.

“Our researchers at UB are hard at work sequencing positive test samples to inform county health officials what variants are present in the county,” said UB Vice President for Health Sciences Allison Brashear, MD, who is also dean of the Jacobs School. “That’s critical information that health officials and members of the community need to protect our region and one another.”

“We have a new variant in our community and we need to respond accordingly,” said Surtees, also co-director of UB’s Community of Excellence in Genome, Environment and Microbiome. “This virus has evolved; it’s not the same virus it was at the start of the pandemic or even during the delta wave. And while we’ve only been looking at omicron for less than a month, there is a tremendous amount of data available from around the world that can help us prepare for this. We have the tools to mitigate the spread, but we need to work together as a community.”

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when omicron arrived in Western New York, Surtees said that her team had sequenced about 800 samples in November, all of which were delta. “So it’s possible that omicron didn’t arrive here until this month,” she said.

More transmissibility, less immunity

Surtees and other researchers worldwide have noted the attributes of omicron that make it such a serious threat. “This variant appears to be even more transmissible than the delta variant,” she said. “Part of that is due to its ability to replicate quickly, and part of it is its increased ability to evade our immune system as compared to delta.”

She noted that the experience the United Kingdom has had with omicron is illustrative for the U.S. and for Western New York.

“Unfortunately, cases in the UK have exploded with the arrival of omicron, and hospitalizations have spiked in parts of the country,” she said. “The system in the UK is at risk of being overwhelmed, as are hospitals in the U.S.”

She noted that unlike in South Africa, where cases were pretty low when omicron arrived, both the UK and the U.S. were in the midst of a delta wave when omicron appeared.

“In the UK and the U.S., everything is already under significant strain from delta; omicron just ramps it up further,” she said.

She noted that while vaccines are still the strongest defense against the virus, the latest scientific evidence indicates that all fully vaccinated people need to get a booster shot as soon as they are time-eligible.

“People who are six months past the second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or two months after one dose of the J&J vaccine are poorly protected against omicron,” she said. “The good news is that third dose, a booster, brings that protection way up again.”  

People who have had booster doses are significantly better protected against omicron. However, our vaccines are not perfect, added Thomas Russo, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine at the Jacobs School. Even boosted individuals can be infected and potentially spread the virus (albeit less so than the unvaccinated or those not boosted); but importantly, he said, disease is likely to be mild in those who have received booster shot.

“Erie County has been doing the right things in terms of responding to the delta surge,” said Russo. That includes encouraging the unvaccinated to get vaccinated and those eligible to receive their booster dose, requiring people to mask in public places indoors, emphasizing the importance of avoiding risky behavior, and increasing the availability of testing. “Omicron makes all of these things even more critical,” he said.

Urgent need to get all 3 doses of the vaccine

“For example, there is an urgent need now for people to get both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as well as the booster,” Russo said. “To be optimally protected against omicron, all three doses of these vaccines are needed.” CDC officials have expressed a clinical preference for individuals to receive an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine over the J&J COVID-19 vaccine, Russo said, except in rare circumstances.

Russo cautioned that another difference is that some of the COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatments that have been successful in the past are not effective against omicron.

“So far, it looks like only one monoclonal antibody (sotrovimab) appears to be effective against omicron,” he said. “So that’s going to limit your monoclonal antibody treatment options if you do get sick. That’s why it’s even more critical now that people do whatever they can to avoid getting infected.

“However, there was some good news today," he continued. "An EUA was approved by the FDA for Paxlovid, an oral treatment option. If taken within the first 5 days of infection, high-risk individuals had a nearly 90% decrease for hospitalization and death. It is predicted that Paxlovid will be active against omicron, although supply will be initially limited.”

Russo emphasized people need to take more precautions with the increase in social gatherings over the holidays.

“So in addition to getting vaccinated and boosted, we need to wear high-quality masks that fit well in indoor settings, public and otherwise, and utilize rapid tests to screen for infections before we spend time indoors with family and friends when masks cannot be worn (e.g. eating and drinking),” he said.

“And if you have any symptoms at all, please stay home and away from others, and get tested,” Russo added. “This is about taking care of each other while we are taking care of ourselves.”