Omicron Covid variant frightens the world
By Howard S. Armistead
South African health authorities announced the detection of a new SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-2) variant of concern on 24 November. Within hours air links to some European countries and the United States were slammed shut from seven southern African countries, in some cases only weeks after they had finally reopened.
Whether this is an overreaction or not, it will have negative consequences for economies across southern Africa, especially those that rely on tourism. This is despite only South Africa and Botswana reporting cases of the omicron variant in the region to date. The first case was detected by the Harvard HIV team in Botswana on the ninth of November. Within five days of its announcement from South Africa, over a dozen countries had detected cases. Everyone is now bracing for potentially the biggest wave of infections yet.
What is different about B.1.1.529, the omicron variant? Although more than a dozen SARS-2 variants have arisen over the last two years, none has had anywhere close to the fifty mutations detected in omicron. The delta variant only differed by two mutations. Thus, some have called omicron a whole new lineage of Covid, practically a different coronavirus. This is like a different strain of influenza where every year new genetic combinations arise, and new vaccines need to be developed. While most scientists believe current vaccines will be most effective against SARS-2-omicron, this is not a certainty. Vaccine manufacturers are preparing to test their current vaccines against omicron and if they are less effective, they will launch new development programs immediately. New, more effective vaccines could be developed within three months. This is like the annual influenza vaccine development program. As always, richer countries will be first in line to scoop new vaccines off the production line.
It is still too early to know everything about omicron because it will take a month to see how virulent omicron is, how likely it is to make people sick or kill them. Scientists believe this variant probably originated in someone who was HIV positive but whose virus was not suppressed with antiviral drugs. That condition becomes a perfect laboratory for viral mutation and suggests the South African Ministry of Health should place more focus on getting close to 40% of those who are HIV positive that are not accessing HIV health services onto ARVs. In this pandemic era, that is more important than ever.
What is most striking about omicron is that it appears to be five times as contagious as the delta variant. Delta is 60% more contagious than the original Wuhan type virus. In just three days, the percentage of people testing positive for Covid tripled in Gauteng Province, the current centre of the omicron sub-pandemic. Omicron is already the dominant strain in South Africa.
Those who are unvaccinated and were passed over by delta are unlikely to be so lucky with omicron. Obviously, now is the time to get vaccinated immediately because the viral firestorm is spreading fast and those relying on natural immunity from a previous infection probably will not have that against the reconfigured omicron. Vaccines are very safe and highly effective in preventing serious illness and death. Scientists believe current vaccines will continue to be effective against omicron, at least against severe disease.
While vaccines do not prevent every infection, even vaccinated people who get infected can pass the virus to others. People who have breakthrough infections after a jab will not get as sick, or for as long, and their chance of infecting others is reduced. One might still catch Covid-flu, but there is a 97% chance Covid will not be severe, and a 99+% chance one will not die.
During a pandemic health crisis, many are confused by false and misleading information. However, they fail to follow the advice of scientists and doctors at their own peril. Now is not the time to play Russian roulette or gamble with life. Vaccination not only protects one’s own life, it also protects the health and lives of family, friends and the community. Those who do not get vaccinated perpetuate this pandemic and increase the chance of new, more dangerous mutant variants arising. For those who are already fully vaccinated, a booster shot is a wise precaution six months after getting their last jab.
Vaccine antibody protection can decline up to 50% six months after initial vaccination, but a booster shot raises protective antibody levels to all-time highs, significantly improving original vaccine protection. Even though antibody protection wanes over time, the cellular component of the immune system still provides immunity against the disease, even if antibody protection has diminished.
How dangerous is the new omicron variant? We should know the answer to that question within a month. At this stage, it is impossible to provide an accurate answer. Most cases of omicron have been in people that were unvaccinated. Many showed no symptoms. This suggests omicron is no more dangerous or deadly than delta. It might be less so. Virologists know that when a virus mutates to become more contagious, it often becomes less virulent at the same time. There is a trade-off. If omicron is less deadly, it would be beneficial for it to spread widely and outcompete delta to become the most prevalent variant worldwide. That could lessen the impact of this pandemic. On the other hand, some of the fifty mutations of omicron appear similar to those in the beta variant that allowed it to evade aspects of both natural and vaccine-induced immune responses. That could make omicron more dangerous. Much is unknown. Scientists will soon answer these questions.
Although some believe if they have already had Covid they are immune from reinfection, that is not true. Scientists suggest naturally acquired immunity from infection is less effective than that provided through vaccination. With a virus that has so massively mutated to be almost unrecognizable from the original, natural immunity would provide no more protection than one year’s influenza infection provides against the next year’s flu strain. Anyone who wants to bet their natural immunity is strong enough to ward off omicron might be proved dead wrong. It is best not to change that.
Vaccination is very safe, quick, and easy. Some people suffer flu-like symptoms for up to a day after their first or second jab. Some never experience any side effects at all. Despite a few hours of slight discomfort a vaccination may or may not provide, that is a small price to pay to ensure one’s self from hospitalization and death, as well as protecting the life and health of family, friends, and coworkers. Once a house is on fire, it is too late to buy a fire extinguisher. Luckily, selenium supplements can still boost immunity and be used from the earliest sign of Covid infection to reduce the chance of more serious disease and death.
Long Covid is another major consideration. Half of those who become ill with Covid suffer an extended version of the disease called long Covid. Symptoms of the original illness can linger for months, even years. Long Covid may include a combination of several chronic conditions including mental, nervous system, muscular and cardiovascular illnesses. The most common is reduced lung capacity. Those who only suffer mild to moderate symptoms such as flu-like symptoms or pneumonia during initial acute SARS-2 infection can also suffer long-Covid. One assumes the more severe the initial acute disease is, the more serious the lingering symptoms of long-Covid will be. Some cases of long Covid are debilitating. Some symptoms may last a lifetime. Vaccine hesitancy should be weighed against the potential of life-long ill-health. Better to be safe today, than to be sorry for the rest of one’s life.