Thoughts from the President During a Pandemic

December 4, 2021 - Maintaining Optimism Despite Omicron

Dear Danforth Center Community

We have many reasons for optimism about moving beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, including the fact that the Danforth Center community is now 98.2% vaccinated. That’s remarkable! Boosters with exceptional efficacy are now available to all adults, and a COVID-19 pill (Paxlovid) with a reported 90% efficacy at preventing severe disease is on the horizon. Testing and variant tracking have never been better, with 1 of every 7 COVID-positive samples in the U.S. now undergoing complete virus genome sequencing. As such, we are planning for more in-person and hybrid activities in 2022. But that optimism is challenged by the disturbing upswing in COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant, and by serious concerns about the new Omicron variant. Let’s discuss what we know today about Omicron.

Will current mRNA vaccines protect against the Omicron variant? It is too soon to tell. The best guess among experts is that there will be at least partial protection, especially following a booster. The basic problem is the 30 mutations or differences between the Spike gene used to make current vaccines and the Spike gene of Omicron. That means antibodies from vaccination (or infection by Delta and previous variants) might be less effective against Omicron. A better sense of vaccine-mediated protection will require another few weeks, though more accurate quantitative data will require several months.

Is Omicron more transmissible or virulent? Information is limited, but a recent report indicates that Omicron quickly became the dominant variant in South Africa and is better able to cause reinfection of individuals who were infected by prior variants. Omicron reached nearly 40 countries and at least seven U.S. states, including Missouri, since initial detection in November.

How did the Omicron variant arise? Omicron is most closely related to a minor variant that was detected in mid-2020. But Omicron contains a large number of mutations that seem to have appeared suddenly in COVID-positive samples in South Africa and neighboring countries last month. Intermediate strains that progressively acquired these Omicron mutations, however, are like missing links and have never been seen. SARS-CoV-2 is known to mutate extensively during long-term infections in immunocompromised individuals, so some virologists suspect that Omicron evolved over a long period of time in one chronically infected person with a weakened immune system.

The Danforth Center community has been proactive with, and adherent to, vaccination and anti-COVID-19 measures. These are the best tools we have to deal with Omicron and to maintain optimism about 2022.

Jim Carrington, President and Chief Executive Officer

Previous Weekly Messages from Jim Carrington

Danforth Center Response Plan

The Danforth Plant Science Center recognizes the potential of exposure to Coronavirus (COVID-19) in our building and the impact it could have on our people and the Center. Accordingly, we have a plan in place in the event of a positive test for COVID-19 of an individual who was present in our Building(s).

Danforth Center Updates

During this unique moment in history, the first priority of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is the health and safety of our Center community, our families, and those who work with us.