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Former CDC director explains shift in COVID-19 represented by omicron

Dr. Robert Redfield
Posted at 11:13 AM, Dec 31, 2021
and last updated 2022-01-03 10:44:53-05

With the latest COVID-19 variant leading to record numbers of cases worldwide, a top infectious disease expert says the virus is undergoing a major shift.

Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says COVID-19 will continue to evolve, becoming more transmissible but less likely to cause serious illness.

"(The) delta (variant), that virus replicates in the upper and lower respiratory tract in the lungs. It causes a lot of lung disease, and many of the 800,000 deaths that we've had have died because of pulmonary insufficiency," Redfield said. "Omicron doesn't replicate very well in the lungs. It replicates up above the neck in the oral pharynx and in the sinuses. And as a consequence, we're not seeing as much of the serious pulmonary disease."

Redfield did say that the virus is still serious enough to cause hospitalization and death among those vulnerable to COVID-19. He also said people need higher immunity to protect against omicron, and that's why so many vaccinated people and those with prior infections are testing positive again.

However, he said the vaccines are working very well to prevent hospitalizations and deaths — they just need to be "recharged."

"That's why the third booster injections are so important, and I will predict that because omicron being less susceptible to the immunity and delta, that is very likely that come the early spring, we will need a fourth injection to protect ourselves," Redfield said.

The FDA and CDC are set to meet next week to consider expanding Pfizer's booster shot eligibility to adolescents and possibly younger children with immune deficiencies.

Redfield is now a senior medical adviser to a public health firm that supports health departments and schools with COVID-19 testing, vaccines and protocols. He says overall public health needs more help.

"These public health threats are, to me, much more likely to impact the way of life in the United States and more threats to our security, and we ought to invest in them," Redfield said. "Proportionally, we don't."