“Virologists will tell you that predicting how a new virus might evolve is a fool’s errand. Predicting that it will evolve is money in the bank.” – The Economist.
Since the genome for Covid-19 was first sequenced in January 2020, there have been 5.6 million sequence variations added to the database. Obviously most variations do not make much difference, but a very few do so spectacularly. The Omicron variant is different than others seen up until now.
One week ago, we reported that the new variant was seen in three countries and predicted that it was pretty much everywhere but unknown at that point. Today it has been identified in at least 40 countries and growing, some with significant numbers of infection, but in none except South Africa has it yet pushed out the Delta variant as the most prominent.
For example, in the United States, the total number of cases tops 100,000 per day, yet we have identified with surety fewer than 1,000 of Omicron. This is due partially to the inability to quickly sequence samples, partially it still hasn’t yet pushed out Delta. Some 1,650 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus on December 4; deaths follow infections by several weeks and therefore we have yet to see the virulence of Omicron, nor for that matter, the effect of increased transportation and activity surrounding Thanksgiving.
Our numbers most probably will rise significantly over the next three to six weeks.
Is not yet clear how much more transmissible Omicron will be than Delta, but based on the South African data clearly it will be. It remains too early to tell how much more serious infections with Omicron will be.
Many clinics in the United States are reporting long lines with people seeking vaccination because of fears of the Delta variant.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said that so far the Omicron variant in the United States has not appeared to have produced more severe cases then Delta, but it is too early to tell.
Scientists in South Africa, who are dealing with the bulk of the Omicron cases reported worldwide, believe that it will more easily affect cells while the current vaccines may protect against severe disease.
Noufar Afeyan, cofounder of Moderna, stated that a new variant that could get into human cells better while avoiding antibodies from a previous infection or vaccination “would be a dangerous thing. Omicron is exactly that.” Bio-N-Tech, the inventor of the other RNA vaccine, states it could develop and deliver new vaccine in 100 days designed against the Omicron variant.
It’s been said that we will know more about the new variant, but already we’ve learned a great deal about Covid-19 in the last 24 months. It’s expected that we will learn a lot more about Omicron in the near future.
In my opinion, it still is too early to rush to judgment. It is reasonable to take precautions, the best ones including vaccinations and boosters, uniform and proper mask wearing, and social distancing. If this is done, we can delay or avoid altogether measures such as curfews and school closures, which are felt to bring few benefits to controlling infection by themselves.
My daughter just came home from 10 days in Paris. She reported that everybody there was wearing a surgical mask and doing so properly. You could not get into anywhere without showing proof of vaccination. Rapid testing was free and readily available. The rate of Covid-19 infection in France is significantly less than that in the United States.
This, to me, suggests that there is a way to control the disease, without stopping public life altogether. It is unfortunate that too many Americans do not want to accept this.
In truth, we do not know much more about the Omicron variant than we did last week. We predicted that it was in many more places than was initially reported, and this has proven true. We stated that basic infection mitigation techniques were the best way to protect against Covid-19 infection at this point and still revolve around those that we already had.
We’ve seen many other people use the phrase “closing the barn door after the horse or cow has escaped.” In my opinion, if we do this we will severely limit death and disability and have the time to develop new vaccine specific to the most prominent variants.
Dr. Richard Sternberg, retired Bassett Hospital orthopedic surgeon, is providing his professional perspective during the COVID-19 threat. Also a village trustee, he lives in Cooperstown.