The omicron variant and what it means for UConn

While scientists are still conducting research on the newly discovered variant, the University of Connecticut will still provide surveillance testing and vaccinations to stop the spread. The university will stick to its heavy mandate of safety protocols. Photo by Anna Shvets/Pexels

The COVID-19 omicron variant had begun to gain attention in the media based on threats of possible lockdowns and intensity.  The University of Connecticut must pay close attention to the potential threat of the variant and what it means future semesters and rules regarding COVID-19 safety measures.     

Carolyn Teschke, professor and interim department head for molecular and cell biology, gave her opinion through an email on the omicron variant based on the information known from its early stage. 

“These are early days. Omicron seems to be spreading quickly in [the] countries of southern Africa and may be replacing the delta variant as the primary circulating virus,” Teschke said.  “That doesn’t mean that it is more dangerous or will cause severe disease. Researchers really need time to test the efficacy of our current vaccines, the effects of the mutations carried by omicron on infection and transmissibility, etc.” 

In the past almost two years, UConn has been dealing with COVID-19 and the uncertainties it has posed. The university has implemented various safety measures, including closures and PPE protocols to keep students and faculty safe as they return to campus. Teschke said she feels that UConn has done well in controlling the spread of COVID-19 since being back on campus. 

“I think UConn has done an excellent job. UConn is doing surveillance testing for COVID-19 and mandated vaccinations. Last academic year, when COVID-19 was detected by surveillance, students were quarantined. I think this kept our infection rate low,” Teschke said.  “UConn’s vaccination rate is great and this allowed us to have in person classes again. I also would like to thank all of the students who are following the mask mandate.” 

Mazhar Khan, professor of molecular biology, gave information regarding the chemical properties of the omicron variant and how much of a threat it may pose through an email. 

“The omicron variant as stated has multiple mutations at its Spike protein 1 (S1),” Khan said. “Mutational Changes in S1 of COVID-19 will be less protected or may not be protected by the current COVID-19 vaccinated people since it will be producing antibodies different from current COVID-19 vaccine.” 

Because of the specific properties the omicron variant carries, there is a possibility that there will need to be an additional vaccine to protect people from its specific risk of infection, Khan said. 

“There might be need to develop vaccine using omicron variant strain S1 mRNA vaccine,” Khan said.   

Still, Khan said there are unknowns about the variant and its risk. He said, while the media has begun to portray it in an intensely negative light, the science behind its risk has not yet uncovered the real extent of its risk. 

“Vaccine companies are working on it to see if this variant can still be controlled by the current vaccine. They’re using virus neutralizing assay (called VN) on omicron variant to check if current vaccines antibodies can neutralize omicron variant,” Khan said. 

For now, in order to continue to have students be able to reside on campus and stay safe with low rates of the spread of COVID-19, Teschke said the school and individuals must maintain the safety protocols which have been implemented. 

“Get vaccinated, get your booster when you can. Wear your mask, wash your hands— a lot!  Don’t touch your face. Put your mask over your nose,” Teschke said.  “Don’t hang out in large groups without masks on. Even with vaccination, you can be infected and then spread the virus to vulnerable people. If I was responsible for someone getting sick because I was careless, I would feel awful! It’s about taking care of the community.”

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