The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine

A syringe containing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. 

Alaska health care officials are urging eligible Alaskans to receive Covid-19 booster shots in response to the new Omicron variant, which is now in the United States. The variant is not yet in Alaska, but it is likely only a matter of time before it is detected in the state.

“We will see this variant in Alaska,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said of Omicron. First detected in South Africa last week, the heavily mutated Omicron variant was found in San Francisco three days ago. The case was detected on Nov. 29 in a vaccinated traveler who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22. As of Wednesday, the variant has been detected in 33 countries, including the U.S. In a call on Wednesday, Alaska health officials said it is a question of when, not if, the new variant will arrive in the state.

In light of the variant’s arrival, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging booster shots for all adults who received their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines over six months ago or a Johnson and Johnson shot more than two months ago to get a booster shot.

There are many unknowns about the Omicron variant, including whether it is more or less contagious and deadly and whether existing vaccines will be effective against it. The variant has been found in people who have been previously exposed to the virus, either through vaccination or a previous infection.

Zink said she was most concerned by the mutation to the spike protein. Most vaccines target the spike protein, so the mutation could therefore impact vaccine efficacy, although there is no indication yet that this is the case with Omicron.

Even if the vaccine does not work fully, it is better than nothing. “Imperfect protection is still better than no protection,” Zink emphasized. The best way to prevent the virus from continuing to mutate is to get vaccinated. The more people globally who are vaccinated, the fewer opportunities the virus has to replicate, Zink said.

Zink added that there will almost certainly be other variants as well because the virus continues to evolve.

“We’re all tired of Covid but unfortunately it is not tired of us,” Zink said.

The good news is that mRNA vaccines can be produced quickly, clinical pharmacist Coleman Cutchins said. Vaccines can be created in as little as six weeks, he explained. Work is already underway on a booster to specifically target Omicron, Zink said.

If the booster or vaccine is able to be created without significantly modifying the current Covid-19 vaccines, it will not need to go through the full approval process, according to Cutchins.

Although many questions about the new variant remain, the same tools used to prevent other variants of Covid, such as masking and physical distancing, should work against Omicron, Zink said.

Contact reporter Maisie Thomas at 907-459-7544 or mthomas@newsminer.com.

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