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UNC epidemiologist Justin Lessler

On the same day the U.S. confirmed its first case of the omicron variant, UNC epidemiologist Justin Lessler found himself back before a legislative commission answering questions about ongoing efforts to end the pandemic.

“I remain cautiously optimistic about the direction things are going in the state, but with emphasis on the caution,” Lessler said.”I think we need to be prepared for the possibility of a significant winter wave at this point.”

Lessler, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said as more people gather indoors for holiday festivities there’s much that remains unknown about the new variant.

“Even with significant immune invasion, it’s important to remember that vaccination will likely remain the most effective way to prevent severe disease and hospitalization even if it doesn’t fully prevent infection,” Lessler testified Wednesday.

He said very preliminary data out of Israel suggests that the current vaccines may work fairly well against the new variant.

“But just to remind you, new variants with immune escape are inevitable, and if this variant doesn’t lead to some cases coming back, ones in the future will. But hopefully those future waves – and probably those future waves – will not result in the kind severe disease you see when people are seeing the virus for the first time and have not been primed from earlier infection or immunity.”

But even as Professor Lessler made the case for vaccines and boosters, it was clear that some lawmakers would not be swayed.

Rep. Mark Brody, a Republican from Union County, questioned whether the vaccines could alter one’s DNA.

Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union Co.)

“There are a lot of people who haven’t taken the vaccine including myself, because we just don’t know what it is.”

Lessler patiently explained that there has been confusion about the technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and what’s in the vaccine itself.

“The vaccine itself contains messenger RNA, which never enters the nucleus of the cell, so has no opportunity to quote-unquote ‘edit our genes.’ It is a way to get the cells to express the things our immune system needs to see, to fight the virus without giving it the real virus.”

Rep. Brody asked Lessler if he supported the use of Ivermectin, an animal dewormer, to battle COVID-19.

“Would you support the right to try, along with all the other methods of trying to eradicate and help people with the virus?”

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic medicine used for livestock. It has not received emergency use authorization from the FDA, which issued its own warning about using the drug for COVID.

“I think there’s a difference between whether I think it’s okay to have the right to do something, and whether I think that’s a good idea,” the epidemiologist offered.

“We in this country have the right to do a lot of things that are bad ideas.”

Rep. Jamie Boles (R-Moore), a funeral home director, said it was frustrating that hospitals were not more willing to try Ivermectin on COVID patients.

“Families are asking for this right, and hospitals are not entertaining that,” said Boles.

“Doctors take an oath to do no harm. And if they give a treatment, they have to have some feeling that it will work and be better than the side effect,” Lessler tried to explain.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth Co.)

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) pressed on.

“My understanding and I’m certainly not a doctor and don’t know that much about it, but my understanding is those drugs — the Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin have been used for decades and there are very little side effects. Why is there that pushback?”

“I think it may come down to the evidence, and that fact that we might have other things that help. And sometimes doing nothing is the best thing.”

Unlike a livestock dewormer, Lessler said monoclonal antibodies are a proven treatment. He said the nation is very close to having other antivirals to help people fight a COVID infection.

Lessler said we might not defeat COVID but his hope was that it will at some point change to a seasonal nuisance.

“So what role can state and local governments take in hastening that transition?” asked Sen. Deanna Ballard.

“To the extent that they are able to, encourage people to get vaccinated,” Lessler responded. “That is the most long lasting thing that we can do in terms of how we can impact the pandemic.”

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