Research News

UB officials, experts keeping tabs on omicron variant


Published December 3, 2021

headshot of Jennifer Surtees.
“We have literally hundreds of samples in our sequencing pipeline right now. We are keeping an eye out for both the delta and the omicron variants. ”
Jennifer Surtees, associate professor
Department of Biochemistry

UB officials and infectious disease experts are keeping a close watch on the latest developments regarding the new COVID-19 variant of concern named omicron and are continuing to urge members of the UB community to get vaccinated or, if they’ve already been vaccinated, make sure they get a booster shot once they are eligible.

“We have literally hundreds of samples in our sequencing pipeline right now. We are keeping an eye out for both the delta and the omicron variants,” says Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and co-director of the Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence.

She and her colleagues at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences have been conducting the only genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples in Western New York.

“We want to say thank you to the scientists in South Africa and Botswana for first finding the variant and for telling the world about it,” Surtees adds.

Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious diseases in the Department of Medicine in the Jacobs School, says scientists are awaiting further data about the omicron variant but notes that the vaccines should provide strong protection against serious illness.

Still, this new variant is potentially concerning for two reasons.

“First, the rapid increase in cases in South Africa, where delta was the dominant variant, suggests that omicron may be able to outcompete delta. No other variant has been able to do that,” Russo, whose expertise has been sought out by news organizations across the globe since the start of the pandemic, explained recently in an appearance on The National Desk.

“Second, examination of the sequence supports that this particular variant may be more transmissible, and further, perhaps of greater concern, some of the mutations that it possesses suggest that it may be resistant to immunity acquired from prior infection, immunity from vaccination and protection that individuals can receive with treatment with some of our monoclonal antibodies.”

While they may not be as effective against the omicron variant, vaccines and boosters still provide the best level of protection against infection, Russo notes.

“It’s possible with omicron that our vaccines might not be quite as effective, but it’s still highly likely that it will afford a degree of protection to minimize serious disease, keep people out of hospital,” he says.

“That’s why there’s the emphasis for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated and those that have been previously vaccinated and eligible for boosters to get the boosters to max that protection and therefore protect against the most serious disease.”

Free COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are available to all members of the UB community at three on-campus clinics through Dec. 16. UB is also hosting a designated New York State vaccination site for the Western New York community in Harriman Hall on the South Campus.