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The rise of Omicron: what does it mean for the healthcare community?

Article-The rise of Omicron: what does it mean for the healthcare community?

The new COVID-19 variant is spreading faster than any previous strain, warns WHO.

According to estimates released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Omicron Covid-19 variant is now the most dominant strain in the US, accounting for over 73 per cent of new coronavirus cases less than three weeks after the first case was detected.

Omicron accounted for 73.2 per cent of cases during the week ending December 18, while Delta accounted for 26.6 per cent. Omicron was just 12.6 per cent of the circulating virus the week before, ending December 11, and accounted for roughly 1 per cent of new cases in the first week of December.

In an interview with Dr. Andrew Badley, head of Mayo Clinic’s COVID Task Force and infectious disease researcher, we deep dive into what the spread of the new variant means for the healthcare and wider community.

WHO has warned that Omicron is the fastest spreading variant yet, already found in 77 countries less than a month after being officially reported. What does this mean for the healthcare community, especially as the world was adapting to COVID by implementing preventative measures such as the vaccine? 

Unfortunately, that means we are going to see many many more infections, and although the Omicron variant may cause less severe disease, just through the sheer number of cases it is likely that we will see many more hospitalisations and deaths. It also means that we as healthcare providers need to advocate for what we know works to reduce infection rates and reduce disease severity, which are promoting universal vaccination and boosters. Also, universal masking in public places, social distancing and frequent handwashing, and when you have been in contact with a case or have symptoms, to get tested and if need be treated quickly.

Dr. Andrew Badley.png

Dr. Andrew Badley, image supplied

Omicron’s high number of mutations based on protein spike have reportedly made it one of the most transmissible variants. How will this affect vaccine protection, as there is discussion on the effectiveness. 

Vaccine effectiveness is not all or none, it is a matter of degrees. So far, the current data suggests that the available vaccines have a slight reduction in protection against Omicron compared to other variants, but the degree of protection is still high. Consequently, there is no need at present, and likely will not be a need to create new vaccines for the Omicron variant. Boosting can also help in two ways; first boosting increases the quantity of antibody which is helpful, but more importantly boosting can improve the quality of antibody responses through a process known as affinity maturation. Also Boosting enhanced T cell responses to Omicron, which adds a third level of added protection.

Mutation of viruses is a common phenomenon, how has technology aided in the in early detection and prevention of new strains? 

The widespread ability of labs across the world to detect the virus through techniques such ads PCR, and to sequence the virus allows scientists to see near real time, when there is conserved mutation I viral isolates.

Is there a probability of the new strain being less severe if the population is already vaccinated or in patients who had already contracted COVID before? Are vaccine boosters necessary measures in safeguarding the population? 

New strains of any virus can be more severe, or less severe of not alter disease severity in any way. Whether to vaccinated is not impacted by the presence or absence of new strain. We know without any doubt that vaccination against SARS-CoV2 reduces ones likelihood of becoming infected, or becoming sick if infected, of developing severe disease if sick, or ultimately dying from infection. The protection is not absolute, but there is a many fold risk reduction from vaccination, especially with a booster. 

The origins of the Omicron variant is inconclusively being linked to being discovered in AIDS patients, placing HIV under the microscope, with possible reasons being an uncontrollable case of HIV and COVID resulting in the new strain. What are your thoughts? 

We do know that as long as a virus continues to replicate and spread within a society, we will keep seeing new mutations, so we will see more variants in the future. The existence of omicron is not due to a single case. 

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