A previous essay (1a) on this blog discussed variants of concern at that time: Omicron;a witches
Updated: May 4
This blog was first written some months ago. In the intervening period a subvariant (BA. 2) of Omicron has emerged. With this and the end of restrictions, mask wearing, social distancing and testing, infection and hospitalisation rates are spiralling. There are as many people in hospital today as this time last year. Schools are closed due to the high infection rate, employment is seriously affected etc.
This blog discusses the consequences of inaction and uses recent reports to update that discussion.
Omicron has emerged as the dominant strain of Covid-19 and is rapidly infecting people across the world. It is highly transmissible but argued to be less dangerous. Is this assertion, based on incomplete scientific and medical data, correct? Arguably we have not yet seen how dangerous Omicron is. What is more, the Delta variant is still here, creating a witches brew in terms of contagion.
Vaccines and Omicron
Moreover, should we be concerned that it is argued (₩) by some that MRNA (2) (2b) vaccine boosters such as Pfizer BioNtech and Moderna cannot directly fight the virus, but simply raise our T-cell levels (natural antibodies2a) and turbo charge (boost) our immune systems and are short lived in their efficacy? (the neutralising antibodies produced by MRNA vaccines, and indeed adenoviral vector vaccines, (Oxford AstraZeneca) are unable to combat this new variant)(3). And what of another new variant yet to come and one not so weakened? Are we prepared with vaccines that will fight an infection directly?
(In fact, Pfizer, after laboratory research, claim 3 doses of their vaccine does neutralise the Omicron variant: see ¥)
(Likewise, virologists and immunologists also say a third booster dose does directly target the virus through the production of antibodies).
The End of the Beginning?
These are some of the questions this essay will address, however, firstly it will look at Omicron more closely and attempt to discern whether or not it is the end of the beginning of the pandemic or just the start as has been suggested (A).
The Problem of Political Self-Deception and the Irony of Omicron
Omicron is a variant of Covid-19 which contains several mutations; it differs considerably from the original Wuhan coronavirus that the current pandemic began with. It is thought to be less dangerous as less people are requiring hospital treatment (3a). This at least is the popular narrative; deaths from Omicron go largely unreported.
The virus multiplies in the upper respiratory tract (1), not the lungs, which makes the development of pneumonia in patients less likely. However this saving grace is negated by the fact that because the virus replicates there it is easier to breathe out, infecting many more people than the Alpha, Beta, Delta or Gamma variants were capable of doing.
This is the irony of Omicron: on one hand it appears less dangerous, on the other it is far more dangerous, silently infecting as an invisible aresol.
The political implications of not reintroducing restrictions in England are obvious; although the reason for not doing so already is arguably due to a leadership struggle in the Tory Party (B1) not because the symptoms of Omicron are milder. Boris Johnson says the reason we are able to celebrate New Year is because of the success of the booster programme. However,it is arguably precisely because he will not introduce restrictions in the face of vehement opposition from within his own party and the threat of more resignations, not because of the booster programme.
This is perhaps a case of political self-deception at its worst: the distortion of reality against the available evidence and according to one’s wishes; the desire to bury one's head in the sand, hope it all goes away, and to pretend it's all in the cause of some great libertarian agenda on freedom.
The Dangers of Omicron
In fact the danger of a highly transmissible virus, however mild to the majority, is that it infects those who are unvaccinated (20 and thirty somethings who are unvaccinated and ill in hospital are said to be pleading for the vaccine: it is also reported that some young children are more at risk of hospitalization A3) and those who have underlying health issues and who will require hospitalisation. This level of hospitalisation threatens to overwhelm our healthcare system (B&B2).
Why Omicron is Different
Omicron is a variant of Covid-19 which contains many mutations (4): 50 over all, and most notably, 36 in its spike protein; it differs considerably from the original Wuhan coronavirus that the current pandemic began with. To reiterate, it is 'thought' be less dangerous as less people are requiring hospital treatment.
As stated above, the virus multiplies in the upper respiratory tract not the lungs, which makes it less likely that patients will develop pneumonia. But what is the reality of hospital admissions in the UK? How ill do unvaccinated and indeed vaccinated patients become with Omicron? https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/28/unvaccinated-uk-covid-dilemma-vaccine-refusers
The anecdotal evidence from South Africa and here in the UK suggests Omicron, although highly transmissible, is not as debilitating as for example the Delta or Delta plus variant. However, scientists and doctors point out that this variant is yet to reach the older population and that we have not yet seen the full effects of Omicron.
The Consequences of Inaction
Indeed, given that we (arguably) have not yet reached the peak of infection or entered fully into the seasonal flu period, we have little reliable information to go on, except guess work from extrapolated data from South Africa and what has happened here to date.
There is perhaps also a greater problem facing us, for as the virus sweeps across the country and the world unchecked the possibility of a new variant following on behind increases.
The official opposition, the Labour Party, have pointed out that allowing people in poorer nations to go unvaccinated will only make this possibility more likely (5). As a previous essay on this blog illustrated, viruses replicate in a host. If an error occurs in the replication process a mutation or variant is created. This simplistically is the risk facing us through inaction.
Symptoms of a Malaise
So what are the symptoms of Omicron infection? Mild cases are said to resemble a cold: a sore throat, sneezing, a runny nose, headache, and/or fatigue. Severe and mild symptoms are defined differently by different doctors however(6). For example, mild symptoms including fatigue might refer to a patient who is in bed for 3 days and unable to get up or even move; in other words,to some, it feels like flu.
Likewise, oxygen levels in patients might be abnormally low without them noticing at first. This is a feature of SARS-COV-2: severe acute respiratory disease arrives after a prolonged lack of oxygen causing pulmonary and cardiac distress. Conversely, however, patients might only have mild cold symptoms or even be asymptomatic.
This latter factor of the infection dynamic presupposes, given the transmissibility of Omicron, that regular testing should be carried out by individuals, either using PCR tests or the rapid lateral flow antigen test, although the latter are still prone to give false negative and positive results (z).
Unfortunately because there is a shortage of lateral flow tests and PCR testing it is likely people will risk celebrating New Year not knowing whether or not they are infected. The BBC have just shown an interview with a man from Wales, who to avoid the restrictions there, has travelled to London to see some fireworks: these have in fact been cancelled; should we be worried about the consequences of the Prime Minister's refusal to reintroduce restrictions? (In fact since writing the New Year's fireworks were bizarrely reinstated in London but in an undisclosed location away from the Thames).
This has many implications. After all, not least, and perhaps surprisingly, given the political and media focus on how mild Omicron is as a disease, that people do die from this complex variant (7). Moreover, the Delta variant has not gone away, and as the WHO are saying this is leading to a tsunami of cases (#).
Messenger Ribonucleic Acid vaccines may offer us a useful metaphor here; MRNA vaccines utilise the body's own protein producing process. MRNA works naturally with the bodies DNA to transfer vital proteins to their target$. Simplistically, MRNA teaches (transcription, copying) protein cells how to trigger an immune response to the virus or any threat, even potentially, cancer.
The development of these vaccines (possibly available from Pfizer in a 100 days) (¥) is our hope against Omicron and more new variants. Our other hope, in the face of record infection rates today (Z1), is that the government will, as science and medicine do, play their part and target the inexorable advance of Omicron with the tools in their armoury: the reintroduction (copying) of sensible restrictions as soon as possible as scientists have been asking them to do (z1)