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NIH Director Collins says omicron variant questions will be answered as data come in

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Going to turn now to Francis Collins. He's the director of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins, good morning.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Good morning, A. Glad to be with you.

MARTINEZ: There's still lots of unanswered questions about the omicron variant. What can you tell us?

COLLINS: Well, yes, you're right. There are unanswered questions, and they're going to be unanswered for a couple of weeks, as people are pushing with maximum effort to try to identify some of those answers. We don't know, for instance, how - whether this particular variant causes illness that is more or less severe than previous versions of SARS-CoV-2. We do know that it's probably more contagious, at least in South Africa, than other variants because it spreads so quickly. So that part seems clear. Although we don't know whether that would be the case if it was trying to get a hold in a country that also has a lot of delta currently circulating, like the United States, for instance. Can it compete against delta? We don't quite know the answer to that.

The big question, though, A, is - is this variant with its 50-plus mutations so different from the original that the vaccines that we have very, I think, effectively and rapidly developed won't work quite as strongly against it, and the boosters will provide a less benefit than they have against other variants?

MARTINEZ: You're optimistic, but would it be fair to say that that would be your biggest concern right now, considering what we don't know?

COLLINS: That is the biggest concern. Is this variant such a new virus that previous immunity from being infected or having the vaccine or the booster is not going to give the protection that we hope for?

MARTINEZ: Is the NIH operating under the assumption that omicron is already in the U.S.?

COLLINS: I think we are. I think that's the natural expectation when you consider all the other countries, including our neighbors in Canada, that have already seen cases. It's just a matter of time. And I predict probably when that does happen in the next week or so, people will freak out again. But I don't know that we should be too surprised about it. This virus has proven itself multiple times to cross the globe quite stealthily. And then it pops up, and then there it is. I think it was wise to try to slow that process down, as the president has done in terms of travel restrictions. But that's not going to be 100% effective.

MARTINEZ: So considering that, is the NIH doing anything differently now or maybe preparing for something differently?

COLLINS: Well, we're flat out in terms of doing everything we can, working with our colleagues at CDC and at FDA to prepare for whatever those answers are to the questions that are lingering out there. And we have a big role in getting those answers, especially in terms of the laboratory work. And let me just say right now - this is an international effort. We are fortunate that the scientists and the public health experts in South Africa have been wonderfully open and transparent about this. They deserve a lot of credit.

MARTINEZ: Now, we should note, the CDC has strengthened its recommendation for booster shots now, saying that all vaccinated adults should get one. Doctor, what's the strategy for the tens of millions of Americans who remain unvaccinated?

COLLINS: Well, that's a big challenge. And even if it weren't for omicron, that would be a big challenge, A, because those individuals are in fact highly vulnerable to delta, which is still spreading quite happily and regularly across the country, taking a thousand lives a day, and almost all of those are unvaccinated people. So if there's one more wake-up call that we needed - although I don't think we really needed one - maybe this is one more chance for folks who have been on the fence to say, OK, let's do this. So, yeah, if there is some possible silver lining in the emergence of this new variant, maybe it's a chance for people who have not taken this seriously yet to decide to act. It's time to act.

MARTINEZ: One more thing, Doctor. I mean, real disparity right now with vaccine access, especially in African countries. And the Biden administration has been criticized for not delivering on its pledge to vaccinate the world. Are we leaving ourselves vulnerable to new variants like omicron?

COLLINS: Actually, I think the U.S. has done more than any other country. We have already sent out 275 million doses, including a lot to Africa. All other countries together haven't done that much. Of course, I'm a person who believes strongly in global health. I wish we were further along and that we had higher vaccination rates. Interestingly, they have resistance there, too. South Africa tells me they have enough doses. They're having trouble getting people to actually roll up their sleeves, just like we are here. That's a terrible tragedy, that somehow in the face of the worst pandemic in more than a century, the biggest resistance seems not to be science; it seems to be human behavior.

MARTINEZ: That's Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Doctor, thanks.

COLLINS: Thanks. Nice to talk to you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.