An early glimpse of omicron’s threat: High transmission likely, but vaccines provide hope

Written by on December 4, 2021

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COVID-19: First omicron variant case found in US in California

The California and San Francisco Departments of Public Well being have confirmed a current case of COVID-19 brought on by omicron.

Related Press, USA TODAY

Researchers are nonetheless piecing collectively information, early anecdotal proof and current COVID-19 information to raised perceive the brand new, mutated omicron variant of the coronavirus. However lower than two weeks into the worldwide effort, these clues are giving consultants a glimpse of the variant’s menace.

The consensus up to now: Vaccines will possible proceed defending towards extreme illness, however the variant might show extremely infectious, even amongst people who find themselves totally vaccinated or have been beforehand contaminated. 

The variant is at the moment driving an explosion in circumstances in South Africa, and omicron has already unfold to dozens of nations, together with the U.S.

Instances in South Africa have greater than tripled in 4 days regardless of comparatively excessive ranges of immunity. Presently, in South Africa, roughly 30% of the inhabitants has been totally vaccinated and near 40% have had medical COVID.

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“It is exponential progress. From a thousand, you go to three,000 or 4,000 to 6000 and yesterday 11,000 infections being reported in a single day,” stated Sikhulile Moyo, laboratory director for the Botswana Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory in Gaborone, Botswana, and analysis fellow within the Division of Immunology and Infectious Illnesses at Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being, on a convention name.

Researchers have repeatedly cautioned the variant is so new there’s little or no they’ll say definitively.

“It is nonetheless very, very early. You need to take that with a grain of salt, it is solely been per week and a half,” stated Moyo, who first noticed the variant in Botswana.

Omicron seems to be extremely infectious 

Whereas information continues to be coming in, “by way of transmission, we’re seeing an explosion in southern Africa,” Moyo stated.

The fast uptick in circumstances in South Africa coupled with stories of super-spreader occasions has helped validate consultants’ early considerations the variant’s many mutations would assist it unfold quickly.

“That is essentially the most regarding function that we’re seeing proper now,” stated Dr. Roger Shapiro, a professor of immunology on the Harvard Medical College who additionally works in Botswana, talking on a convention name with reporters.

That is born out by early anecdotal proof, together with a Christmas get together on Nov. 26 in Norway, wherein out of 120 fully-vaccinated folks, a minimum of 50 have up to now been confirmed to have caught the omicron variant.

The get together was held indoors at a harbor-side restaurant in Oslo, a metropolis an infection management chief informed E24, a Norwegian enterprise newspaper.

The Christmas banquet, held on Nov. 26, was for a Norwegian renewable power firm referred to as Scatec, which has operations in South Africa. A number of of the individuals who attended had just lately visited the corporate’s Cape City workplace, they informed officers. 

Native well being authorities stated up to now all these contaminated had gentle signs and none had been hospitalized. 

Vaccines anticipated to offer safety from extreme illness

Whereas stories of vaccinated people contracting omicron seem troubling, well being consultants are usually optimistic that vaccines will proceed to offer safety towards omicron.

Nonetheless rising proof suggests people who find themselves both vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 can grow to be contaminated with omicron however could also be much less possible to grow to be severely ailing.

However extreme illness is a very tough matter to shortly assess, Moyo stated.

“It clearly takes between 5 to 10 to 15 days to actually begin seeing will increase in hospitalizations or severity of illness,” he stated. 

The early stories of gentle illness do match an rising idea — whereas omicron might result in an uptick in infections in vaccinated folks, vaccines’ safety towards extreme illness is prone to stay robust.

Nov. 27: Omicron’s influence on vaccines unclear, however contingency plans rolling out

That is as a result of the vaccines maximize each arms of the immune system, the mobile and humoral, stated Shapiro.

“Even when this new omicron variant can escape the humoral, or antibody, response, the mobile response can kick in and maintain the illness to one thing that is solely gentle or reasonable,” he stated. 

Anne von Gottberg — of the College of Witwatersrand — echoed the same sentiment at a World Well being Group briefing on Thursday: “We consider that vaccines will nonetheless, nonetheless, defend towards extreme illness.”

In the US, most omicron circumstances up to now look like in fully-vaccinated individuals who solely skilled a light case of COVID-19. That features the primary recognized case, in San Francisco.  

In Hawaii, an individual who had beforehand recovered from COVID-19 however hadn’t been vaccinated developed reasonable signs. 

Too early for certainty about omicron’s dangers

Early hypothesis about vaccine safety highlights the issue with assessing omicron proper now: Traits are beginning to emerge nevertheless it’s too early to attract conclusions.

So far as is at the moment identified, the finest safety continues to be vaccination, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated in a White Home press briefing.

“How can we tackle omicron? We have stated it over and over, and it deserves repeating: In case you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. Get boosted if you’re vaccinated,” he stated.

In a press briefing Friday, Fauci introduced slides exhibiting the more and more excessive ranges of antibodies after every shot of vaccine.  

“While you take a look at the third dose, you improve the degrees of neutralizing antibodies towards all of the variants,” he stated, noting that median antibody ranges jumped after the third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot. 

There’s good motive to consider being vaccinated and boosted offers “some extent of cross-protection, very possible towards extreme illness, even towards the omicron variant,” he stated.

However he cautioned conclusive findings are weeks away, saying most of what is identified now could be “breadcrumbs.”

“Watch out about breadcrumbs. They could not let you know what sort of loaf of bread you will have,” he stated. “It is simply too early to make a definitive prediction about what the severity goes to be.”

What the longer term holds will grow to be a lot clearer throughout the subsequent two to a few weeks as researchers develop the virus within the lab and take a look at it towards antibodies, in addition to conduct epidemiological research to see whether or not omicron causes extreme illness and if that’s the case, in whom.

Within the worst-case state of affairs, omicron or another variant will become extra transmissible, extra environment friendly at making copies of itself and extra harmful, stated Dr. Bruce Walker, an immunology professor at Harvard Medical College and the Massachusetts Institute of Expertise.

Within the best-case state of affairs, new variants could also be extra transmissible, however much less harmful, basically turning themselves right into a innocent vaccine that protects towards future an infection with the same coronavirus, he stated.

“That is very a lot wishful pondering proper now,” Walker stated, “nevertheless it’s doable.”

Contributing: The Related Press. Attain Elizabeth Weise at eweise@usatoday.com. 


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