Professor on Omicron strain: No reason to panic, but we must be careful

Toivo Maimets.
Toivo Maimets. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

University of Tartu cell biology professor Toivo Maimets said the government's caution toward the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant is completely adequate and there will likely be more information regarding the new strain in a few weeks.

Maimets told Vikerraadio's morning show "Vikerhommik" on Wednesday that new information about the new coronavirus strain is being gathered literally every hour. There is no confirmation about the strain being more aggressive or capable of binding better to cause serious illness or to neutralize the antibodies that have developed after vaccination or recovery.

"This means that I do not find any justification for the panicked attitude, newspaper headlines that we saw in Estonia and the world last week, saying that this is a terrible variant. We must still be careful, however," Maimets said.

The government's patient approach is justified and reasonable, the professor said, adding that labs are working non-stop, as are researchers, to find out how the new strain binds to cells. "There are some optimistic notes currently, but there has been far too little time. We'll wait and see," Maimets said.

He believes that we should all be smarter in some two weeks and noted that the scientific process costs resources, the most important of which is time.

Responding to a question about the efficacy of the existing vaccines against the Omicron strain, the University of Tartu professor said two things must be considered. Firstly, adapting the existing vaccines to the new variant can indeed go quickly, since the RNA-based technology, used in Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, allows the RNA sequence to be processed quickly, since it is synthetic sequencing. "It is as if you hand over a program, that is how different RNA genomes are made," Maimets.

Getting permits from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to administer new vaccines takes considerably longer, however.

Maimets also spoke about oral coronavirus medicines, which have already been given a permit in the U.K. and are expected to arrive to Estonia at the start of next year. He said the particular strain should not matter, as the medicines affect replication mechanisms and the production of the enzymes, which perform replications.

At the same time, the professor pointed out that the slim information available about the oral medicines has already shown them to have significant side effects. Maimets said the Merck medicine molnupiravir has caused fetal malformations for pregnant mice.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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