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Key Words: ‘Nobody was expecting omicron — this one really was a curveball’: Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health’s outgoing director, issues warning to Americans

Dr. Francis Collins, who has just retired as director of the National Institutes of Health — Sunday marked his last day on the job — has some parting words for Americans who are fed up with the coronavirus: The virus is not fed up with you.

As the omicron variant spreads around the world, rattling financial markets and worrying health officials, he told NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” “I’m worried, and I know people are tired of this — I’m tired of this. But the virus is not tired of us.

“If anyone listening to this is thinking of throwing caution to the wind because it’s been so long and they’re just so sick of it, there are real consequences there. We do not know what this virus is capable of doing.”

“Nobody was expecting omicron,” he said. “This one really was a curveball. It’s almost like we’re starting over with a different virus from where we began.” It accounted for 73% of all new coronavirus cases last week.

While appearing, preliminarily, to be milder than previous forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in terms of health impacts, hospitalizations and deaths, this variant is proving more resistant to vaccines.

“‘We’re dealing with a virus that is quite sufficiently different that does really seem to stress the immune system’s ability to respond to it, making this a little tougher than we thought it would be.’”

— Dr. Francis Collins

“All of us were expecting something coming on the heels of delta. But we expected it to be delta-plus,” Collins added. “Instead, what we got was omicron, which bears no relationship to any of the previous strains.”

Collins’s parting warning: “We’re dealing with a virus that is quite sufficiently different, that does really seem to stress the immune system’s ability to respond to it, making this a little tougher than we thought it would be.”

He urged people to get booster shots, observing that, even if just a small fraction of omicron infections are serious, that will still add up to a big number. “We could be having 1 million cases a day if we’re not really attentive to all these mitigation strategies.”

Two years into the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed 803,593 Americans as of Monday. There is a daily average of 133,012 new cases in the U.S., up 21% over the past two weeks, according to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker.

Recent research suggests the Pfizer-BioNTech PFE, +2.59% BNTX, -4.19% and Moderna MRNA, -6.25% booster shots offer more antibodies and protection against serious illness from omicron than the AstraZeneca AZN and Johnson & Johnson JNJ, -0.29% vaccines do.

But millions of vaccine holdouts remain. Just over 61% of the U.S. population — or nearly 204 million people — are vaccinated, and only 29.5% have received a booster shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Collins announced in October that he was stepping down as director of the NIH, having led the research center for 12 years. He has become one of the leading public health voices during the two-year coronavirus pandemic.

He was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2009. He agreed to stay on when asked to do so by Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The NIH, a medical-research agency that is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is based in Bethesda, Md.

Collins, a physician and geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes, served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health from 1993 to 2008. 

“Our healthcare staff are going to get infected with omicron,” Collins told NPR. He said he believed mandating vaccinations for healthcare professionals was a good idea. “Even if they end up with mild disease, they can’t very well be working if they’re sick.”

Coronavirus Update: Data suggest boosters are essential to avoid omicron infection, and Fauci says best way to protect kids is make sure adults around them are fully vaccinated

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