NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Omicron variant of COVID-19 triggered widespread alarm over the weekend. Many countries, including the United States, are moving to restrict travel from Southern Africa where the variant was first detected. But why is the Omicron variant so concerning? 

Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt, said the Omicron variant has a string of mutations that make it concerning and there are a lot of questions about this variant, “Could it spread as rapidly as delta? Or even more? So? Could it make you more seriously ill? And most important, could it evade at least partially the protection we currently have, with our vaccines that we’re using here in the US? All of these are very important questions.”

The Omicron variant has spread through multiple countries but has not yet been detected in the U.S. On a cellular level, scientists are concerned about the mutations in the spike protein of this variant of the coronavirus.

According to Dr. Schaffner, “The spike protein is that part of the virus, think of the virus kind of like a tennis ball, with little spikes going out. Those spikes are like the key that goes into the lock. When the virus attaches to our cells, it sticks that spike protein into our cells, unlocks, the cell goes inside and begins to multiply and then spread to other cells in our body.”

Mutations in the spike protein can impact the efficacy of both natural immunity and vaccine immunity.

“What the vaccines do is blunt that spike protein, so it can’t get in. And that’s how we’re protected against the infection. If this new spike protein can evade the protection of our vaccines, and sneak around it and still get into our cells, well, then people will have a chance to get infected, and perhaps even if they’ve already been vaccinated. So those are the concerns. And we’ll have to work out just how clever this virus is in invading if it does the protection of our current vaccines,” explained Dr. Schaffner.

Even if the current vaccines are less effective against the Omicron variant, they will still provide protection.

Dr. Schaffner said that getting vaccinated is still very important, “So there’s really a double reason to get vaccinated today. It protects us against Delta, and may well enhance our protection against Omicron. So if you haven’t been vaccinated, do so. If you’re eligible for a booster get it. And those children age five and older, Please, Mom and Dad, take them to the pediatrician tomorrow. “

Even with half of all Tennesseans vaccinated, more people need to become immunized to reduce the spread of COVID-19 significantly.

“If people don’t get vaccinated, we’re going to have COVID with us for a substantial period of time making people really sick, we can reduce that profoundly by being vaccinated, you know, we need to get up to over well over 80% of our population vaccinated, that’s a high bar, but we can do this. We’ve done it in the past against polio, and against smallpox, there’s no reason that we can’t do it against COVID.”