What do Omicron, Pfizer, and Moderna all have in common? All may be responsible for ending the Covid-19 pandemic. This won’t be reported in the news, but it’s what many scientists are pondering.
A few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night, couldn’t sleep. It didn’t help that when I looked at my phone, I noticed a news story about a new variant of COVID thought to be more contagious than previous strains. The story about the B.1.1.529 strain or “Omicron” was morbid. It described that Omicron was tearing through South Africa, in a mostly unvaccinated population. Since COVID-19 hospitalizations and death tend to trail infections, it was too early to tell how bad things would be, but all indications were that it would not be good.What a difference a few weeks can make!
Predictions about how infectious, contagious or how fast Omicron spreads were accurate. However, what was surprising is that hospitalizations were not increasing at the same rate as the Delta variant or prior versions of COVID-19. Despite only 25% of the South African population having a vaccine intended to prevent severe illness, those who are infected are not experiencing high levels of severe disease or hospitalizations. Preliminary data of the first 43 documented cases of Omicron in South Africa showing there was only 1 hospitalization was promising. Recently published data shows there is a 70% – 80% reduction in the rate of hospitalizations with Omicron compared to earlier strains such as delta.
It’s not all good news. Omicron will infect more people, faster. Ultimately, this may increase overall hospitalizations despite a reduced rate of hospitalization, if it infects enough individuals. As is pointed out by Christina Ramirez, a biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles in an article in the NY Times, “I don’t want to be alarmist, but I don’t think that you can let your guard down.” Could another mutation exist that makes the virus more dangerous? I guess it is possible, though I doubt this is probable ( based on the statistical concept of reversion to mean – after all, most coronavirus or Coronaviridae are not deadly). If future versions of covid remain similar in nature to O-micron, there is a possible silver lining here, and it’s huge.
O-micron might achieve what the vaccine could not achieve on its own. Omicron can distribute itself effectively, not just in the USA, where there is an abundance of vaccinations and boosters, but globally where vaccines are scarce. In combination with a vaccine bringing COVID-19 antibodies to individuals without a prior exposure to COVID, O-micron infection will confer immunity to others. That could bring forward herd immunity, which takes place when enough individuals have antibodies. Given the lack of global distribution of vaccines, this was unlikely to take place any time soon, if not ever, from Vaccination and boosters alone. The O-micron variant might be the best thing we’ve seen in a long time! Only time will tell.