a drawing of woman in lab coat holding a magnifying glass to examine a larger than life Sars-Cov-2 cell
Dr. Diane Havlir, chief of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine Division for UCSF and UCSF research lead for Unidos en Salud. Illustration by Molly Oleson.

Diane Havlir, the chief of HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine Division for UCSF, gave local leaders an update on the Covid-19 omicron variant today, saying “there’s absolutely no reason for panic.”

“We will know more about omicron in a few weeks,” Havlir said, adding that, in the meantime, the variant with the “unfortunate” name that sounds like something from outer space has increased interest in vaccines and boosters at the Unidos en Salud/United in Health sites run by UCSF, the Latino Task Force and the San Francisco Department of Public Health. 

Havlir, who is the research lead for the Mission project, made her comments on a call to update the Latino Task Force. She cited familiar guidance: “Vaccines for adults and children, boosters, testing, [and] access to medications for high risk infected persons or people who do [get] breakthrough [infections] … or haven’t got vaccinated yet.” 

After its detection in San Francisco last week, omicron has since been detected in one-third of the United States. It is also quickly becoming the dominant variant in South Africa, where it was first detected.

The variant is notable for its many mutations on the spike protein that allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus to enter cells and cause Coronavirus disease (Covid-19). 

“Lots of mutations isn’t necessarily worse,” she said, cautioning that there is still much to learn. 

Omicron did not evolve from the delta variant, she said, and it’s possible that the virus’ stint in immunocompromised populations, such as those receiving cancer treatment or those with AIDS, fostered ideal conditions for these new mutations.

Scientists and health professionals are trying to understand what omicron means for the pandemic’s trajectory, such as whether the current covid vaccines will be effective against the new variant.

Some, like Dr. Joe DeRisi, a biochemist at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub who oversees the genetic sequencing of every positive Unidos en Salud covid sample, are working to understand this through laboratory studies. Results are expected within a matter of weeks.

“Most scientists that I work with think we can modify the vaccines and make them a little more effective,” said Havlir, clarifying that “right now, these vaccines are going to work and protect.” 

She expects minimal reduction in efficacy, maybe around 10 percent. “We definitely will need a booster, but the question is when, and hopefully it will help protect against the new variant,” she said. “From my standpoint, that is all good news.”

Many other questions abound, and Havlir discussed whether the omicron variant is more transmissible than delta, whether it causes more severe disease and whether current medical therapies and diagnostic tests work against the new variant.

She said diagnostic tests, such as the BinaxNow rapid antigen tests and standard PCR method used at the Unidos en Salud site, seem to capably detect omicron. The answer for the rest is pending.

But, as Havlir and Latino Task Force partners pointed out, the news of omicron’s arrival seems to have spurred local residents to line up for testing and vaccines.

Unidos gave out a record 1,169 vaccines and 458 tests at the Unidos en Salud site last weekend. For the first time, reported the Latino Task Force, there was a waitlist for booster doses. Demand for children’s vaccines at the Latino Task Force’s 701 Alabama St. Hub jumped by nearly 80 percent, from 18 to 20 doses to 112.

“We are in a much better place this year, in terms of the tools we have, medically, to combat this virus,” said Havlir. She added that the community should maintain humility as more is learned about omicron, such as spending time with family and friends safely. “That’s really the difference from where we were last year.”

The Unidos en Salud/United in Health vaccination and testing site will be open for two additional days on Friday, Dec. 10, and Friday, Dec. 17 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

The site is regularly open from Saturday to Tuesdays at 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

For more information about receiving a booster in the Mission and to schedule a regular dose or booster dose appointments, visit the Unidos en Salud website (for 24th & Capp site) or register with the Alabama Hub (701 Alabama Street).

For citywide vaccination sites accepting appointments or drop-ins, visit https://sf.gov/vaccine-sites.

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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  1. Isn’t South Africa also seeing a surge in the number of children who are being hospitalized?

    “Absolutely no reason for panic”

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  2. Wow:

    “…there’s absolutely no reason for panic.”

    Appreciate the doctor’s (absolute) confidence, but also glad she added this in her report:

    “Lots of mutations isn’t necessarily worse,” she said, cautioning that there is still so much to learn. ”

    …especially that last part about “still so much to learn.”

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