Omicron variant

Photo: Stock/Canva

Time for calm: Leading scientists ease fears over Omicron variant

The highly-mutated Omicron variant has been responsible for a mass global panic this week. But multiple experts aren’t feeling so fearful.

Omicron variant

Photo: Stock/Canva

It has been a scary few days for South Africans, and the sense of dread that first emerged from the Health Department’s press conference on Thursday has now spread around the world. Omicron is the latest COVID-19 variant to put us all on edge – but we’re already seeing some of the world’s top scientists dial down the fear factor on this new mutation.

Omicron variant: Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom?

Angelique Coetzee, the chair of the SA Medical Association, was one of the first health experts to share her first-hand experiences of dealing with the Omicron strain. As it stands, Coetzee says that symptoms for patients infected with the new variant are ‘extremely mild’. So this thing could be more transmissible, but less debilitating:

“It may be it’s highly transmissible, but so far the cases we are seeing are extremely mild, Maybe two weeks from now I will have a different opinion, but this is what we are seeing.”

“In the cases of Omicron we have seen so far, it presents mild disease with main symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two, or not feeling well. So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer a loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms.”

SAMA Chair Angelique Coetzee

Vaccine protection ‘likely to remain robust’

That’s a great sign for our vaccine programme – which is going to be a common theme in this article. If you’re still not convinced about getting the jab, now is the time to have a proper rethink: Shabir Madhi, the professor of vaccinology at Wits University, has moved to dismiss concerns about Omicron being able to ‘evade vaccine immunity’.

Professor Madhi is convinced that vaccinated people will still have ‘comparable protection against severe COVID’, due to the fact that our virus-busting T-cells can still do their job – regardless of the variant’s composition.

“As vaccines also induce a T-cell response against a diverse set of epitopes, which appears to be important for prevention of severe COVID, it is likely that they would still provide comparable protection against severe Covid due to Omicron compared with other variants. We must learn to live with the virus, and take a holistic view on the pandemic.”

“The detrimental indirect economic, societal, educational, mental health and other health effects of a sledgehammer approach to dealing with the ongoing pandemic threatens to outstrip the direct effect of COVID in South Africa.”

Professor Shabir Madhi

Omicron could be more transmissible, but not ‘vaccine-proof’

T-cell response looks like it will be our strongest line of defence against Omicron, too. Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for the UK, was quick to raise this during a briefing on Saturday evening.

Granted, he was a little cautious about the impact this new variant could have on vaccine efficacy, but he did suggest that vaccines will still be highly effective in preventing severe disease and illness as a result of infection.

“Despite having a reasonable chance of some vaccine escape, we expect the jabs to offer substantial protection against this new variant. Omicron may evade antibodies, but not memory cell immunity [T-cells and B-cells], so severe disease protection from existing vaccines may not be dented.”

CMO Chris Whitty

Omicron symptoms ‘appear to be mild’ – but it’s early days…

Staying in Blighty, Professor John Bell – a senior government advisor on vaccines – is also taking an optimistic look at the potential spread of Omicron. Oxford University’s regious medicine professor declared that the new variant may end up causing no more than “runny noses and headaches” in those who have been vaccinated.

Do we need new vaccines for this variant? Not necessarily…

Johnathan Ball is a Professor of Virology at the University of Nottingham – one of the two UK cities where the Omicron variant was first discovered. He has also been swift in rejecting fears that the vaccines cannot tackle this highly-mutated strain. In his opinion, our first-generation jabs will be the most effective in ‘increasing and broadening immunity’.

“Lots of talk about vaccine tweaking. If you go chasing variants too much you might end up focussing your vaccine on one particular sub-lineage such that a different lineage variant has a big advantage. Sometimes beige is good.”

“If you have hard evidence (we do need insight into protective correlates, that’s for sure) that the current vaccines struggle against Omircron, change it. But we are nowhere near that yet. Pan-coronavirus vaccines are a long way off, and highly unlikely. Multiple jabs with the original vaccine will increase and broaden immunity. Fact.”

Professor Johnathan Ball

The best way to beat Omicron? Get vaccinated

Another advisor to the UK government, Professor Calum Semple, has comprehensively dismissed those who claim that an Omicron outbreak is ‘a disaster’. He thinks the situation has been overstated, but once again, the key is vaccination.

Amongst the scientists who believe Omicron can be neutralised, not many of them are straying away from the need for vaccine protection. As Semple and his fellow experts have explained, getting fully immunised with the jabs available right now give us all the best chance of limiting the impact this new variant can have.

“This is not a disaster, and the headlines from some of my colleagues saying ‘this is horrendous’ I think are hugely overstating the situation. Immunity from the vaccination is still likely to protect you from severe disease.”

“You might get a snuffle or a headache or a filthy cold but your chance of coming into hospital or intensive care or sadly dying are greatly diminished by the vaccine and still will be going into the future.”

Professor Calum Semple