There is Always Something New: A COVID-19 Update
- December 10, 2021
Dear MDIBL Community,
As if the epidemic by itself and the last Delta virus have not been enough, we now have Omicron. This new variant of the virus was first sequenced in South Africa in November and tends to be more contagious than the Delta variant. This by itself is a cause of concern. Although we know that the Delta virus is jumping from one person to the next like a gold medal winner; the new genetic variations of Omicron, especially in the spike region of the virus, makes this variant jump higher and cling more closely to the host cells it finds itself on. In other words, Omicron is more contagious.
As is to be expected, there is a lot of buzz around the new variant. We were already all on high alert about infection and afraid of new variants of the virus, so it is very important to understand what the problem is and what scientific evidence we have about Omicron. Do we have reason to fear the new variant and be alarmed, or is Omicron more of the same with a new name, allowing us to remain calm?
There are two important questions regarding the new Omicron variant:
- Is the course of the disease, that is the clinical symptoms after infections, with Omicron worse, the same, or even less, than after an infection with Delta or other variants?
- How effective are the vaccines against Omicron? Is the vaccination sufficient for this new variant and will the antibody production elicited by the vaccination be high enough and efficient enough to prevent the new variant from infecting the host?
The answers to these questions are not easy to get. First, determining the clinical outcome requires a critical mass of patients to be infected with the Omicron variant so we can build a full understanding. Secondly, to test the efficacy of the antibodies after vaccination we need highly specialized labs and sophisticated methods for reliable analysis.
Fortunately, everybody is working feverishly and we have some of the first answers to the questions above.
- The first reports from South Africa are telling us that the course of the disease with Omicron seems to be less severe. Although there have been more admissions to hospitals, especially in young children, it seems that this reflects more flu-like infections than Omicron infection. Most importantly, no deaths have been reported after an Omicron infection so far. These data are confirmed from other countries and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced two days ago that there is every reason to believe that the new variant is less dangerous than the variants before it. Dr. Anthony Fauci was very calm and reassuring when he gave the press conference.
- Many laboratories around the world are working frantically on the question of how effectively the antibody is in preventing the Omicron virus from infecting the host. The first reports were alarming. A lab in Frankfurt, Germany reported that the antibodies were not effective at all, and other reports varied between 25 to 50% effectiveness. However, yesterday authorities in this area – the founder of the BioNTech vaccine – had a news conference where Pfizer/BioNTech announced that after the third vaccination there are enough antibodies, and these antibodies are effective in controlling an infection by Omicron. This is very reassuring. It is not only that I believe these scientists as scientists, but they have also resisted the temptation to tell the world that we now need a second vaccine from their company.
As it stands, the data of this week should help keep your anxiety levels from riding too high. The scientific data and press releases have shown that there is a new variant, but it is not any more dangerous and the available vaccines are effective (with the reminder that the results shared by Pfizer/BioNTech were all from patients who were vaccinated three times.) Right now, boosters seem to be everything.
Dr. Fauci cautiously provided us with this ray of hope: We have a highly contagious variant such as Omicron, which has a less dangerous clinical course, could indicate that now we have more benign infections and more people developing an immune response. However, I feel this speculation is far too early, we need to wait and see how the “Omicron affair” develops. In any case, we can be reassured that there is not a new danger on the horizon.
Unfortunately, the epidemic is not over yet. In other words, we need to keep the rules and regulations we have abided by for the last 21 months in place, but we don’t need to panic about the Omicron variant because it does not increase the danger level. Let us hope that more people will develop immunity against the virus. With a little bit of luck in the spring things will be better.
Hermann Haller, MD
President, MDI Biological Laboratory