Omicron response: uOttawa Faculty of Medicine professor leads national network studying key questions on newly emerged COVID-19 variant
Posted on Friday, December 3, 2021
(The interview with Dr. Langlois was done on Nov. 29 as Omicron began its global emergence.)
By David McFadden
In labs across the globe, scientists are urgently working to assess the threat posed by the Omicron variant, the highly mutated version of the coronavirus recently identified by South African researchers. It was declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization and has prompted no small measure of global anxiety.
The same key questions are top of mind for just about everyone right now: Is this latest variant more transmissible? Might it lead to more hospitalizations and deaths? How will the vaccines hold up against it?
In Canada, much of the work answering these pressing questions is being done by a national network led by Dr. Marc-André Langlois, a molecular virologist at uOttawa Faculty of Medicine, and Canada Research Chair in Molecular Virology and Intrinsic Immunity.
Dr. Langlois is the executive director of the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network (CoVaRR-Net), a grouping of top academic researchers in nine interdisciplinary teams. This innovative network he spearheaded is comprised of experts from uOttawa, University of Toronto, McGill, and numerous other Canadian institutions. It was created to provide guidance to Canadian policymakers and help ensure a speedy and coordinated response for better researching and responding to the threat variants pose.
In a Nov. 29 interview, Dr. Langlois said CoVaRR-Net researchers have established their blueprint for how to tackle analysis of the various features of the Omicron variant, including a concerning array of unique mutations on the spike protein. The spike is what the coronavirus uses to bind to human cells.
“Features of the virus that we immediately want to look at are examining the sensitivity of the new variant to the antibodies of individuals that have been vaccinated or previously infected. That’s our main objective in this early stage of the analysis -- to get a sense of how much more resistant the virus may be,” Dr. Langlois says.
For this analysis work, the network researchers are employing a biobank of blood samples they set up earlier this year. This biobank has samples from individuals who have been infected with COVID-19 and blood with antibodies from vaccinated people.
As of this writing, network teams have been mobilized to work on parallel experiments to accelerate their chances of success, according to Dr. Langlois. He and his research colleagues are also in close contact with government officials tracking the variant’s day-to-day progress.
The full significance of what Omicron and all its genetic mutations could be capable of will take some time to understand. But Dr. Langlois notes that all indications suggest that this variant will prove to be more transmissible than its predecessors, including its immediate forerunner, the Delta variant.
“This new variant has a larger number of mutations than any other variant. We know from previous studies and from all the other assays done on other variants that this variant has mutated at a larger number of sites that are associated with neutralizing antibody binding,” he says. “So by having more mutations it can be expected that this virus will be more difficult to neutralize.”
But that doesn’t automatically translate into a variant that is more pathogenic.
“It might be more transmissible, but we don’t know yet if it is going to make people more sick and cause more severe disease,” says Dr. Langlois, a full professor in uOttawa’s Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Immunology.
After CoVaRR-Net researchers gauge how effectively antibodies neutralize the virus, Dr. Langlois says they’ll start taking their experiments further. These will include biochemical studies and examinations of how T cells – immune cells that are key to preventing worsening infections – will recognize this variant with so many mutations that some global researchers have referred to it as a “Frankenstein.”
The different facets of this work will help provide information on how the Omicron variant propagates and infects. And as the numbers of infections grow, providing scientists with larger samples across different demographics, a clearer picture will emerge.
“As more and more people get infected, unfortunately, we’re going to see how bad this virus is,” Dr. Langlois says. “And we’re going to be looking at who is getting infected and what is their vaccine status.”
The Omicron variant emerged around the same time that health officials across Canada have started vaccinating youngsters in the 5-11 age group with Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for children. Dr. Langlois says it is important to get children vaccinated regardless of Omicron’s emergence.
“With all the data that we’ve seen so far, the mRNA vaccines are very safe, very effective. For the vast majority of children, there’s no argument against vaccinating. It is an essential component to move forward through this pandemic and further push the virus to becoming endemic,” he says.
Earlier this year, CoVaRR-Net was awarded $9 million in Canadian Institutes of Health Research funding. Dr. Langlois and his team are collaborating with the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Lab (NML), the Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network (CanCOGeN), provincial and territorial public health labs, and other national and international bodies.
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