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UW researchers will determine if the new COVID-19 variant will create a 'real problem'

One UW Medical lab will test the actual omicron variant against antibodies and memory cells in blood samples.

SEATTLE — Labs at UW Medicine in South Lake Union in Seattle are already preparing to test the COVID-19 omicron variant against current vaccines.

“And then test whether cells from people who’ve been vaccinated or infected can actually respond to that variant,” said Doctor Marion Pepper, the interim chair of the medical school’s immunology labs.

“There are a lot of really good scientists in Seattle who spent a lot of time over the Thanksgiving break thinking about how best we’re going to get what we need to find if we’re going to have a real problem here or not,” Pepper said over the concerning number of mutations on the omicron’s spike protein.

Spike proteins surround the main part of the virus and act as keys to latch onto human cells and infect them. Vaccines create antibodies, as does natural infection, to recognize the spike protein in order to block it from doing its job.

“So what we want to know — what are the changes in this new variant that are going to be very dramatic, such that immune system can no longer recognize those shapes,” explained Pepper.

Some of the tests that will be done include attaching the spike protein to a different and harmless virus to see how effective vaccine antibodies and memory cells, such as B and T cells, are at recognizing and fighting it.

Another UW Medical lab will test the actual omicron variant against antibodies and memory cells in blood samples from patients both vaccinated and who’ve experienced natural infection.

“So, we have banked samples, where we can say — after one vaccine, after two vaccines, after a booster —  how do you respond to this new variant," said Pepper.

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