At this time there is not enough scientific evidence to be able to affirm that the new omicron variant of the coronavirus is weaker, and in this sense, prudence should lead us to take extreme precautions because what we do already know is that this new variant of concern is more transmissible than the delta. The omicron variant has already been detected in more than 70 countries around the world, and in some such as Denmark it is already on the verge of displacing the delta. This means that many more people will be able to get this new variant and that, in the long run, there will be an increase in hospitalizations. Furthermore, we know that the neutralizing antibodies generated by current vaccines or even by previous infections are not as effective against this new variant, something that also increases the risk of hospitalization. We must also consider that there are still many people in the world without the complete vaccination schedule. Even vaccinated people have a lower amount of neutralizing antibodies as the months go by after their immunization.
Therefore, the situation with this new variant worsens our immediate perspectives on the control of the pandemic. Hence, it is so important to follow the recommendations of the health authorities and get vaccinated with the third dose. In this way we will increase our neutralizing antibodies and we will be more protected against possible contagion and, above all, against the development of serious disease. This booster dose is critical, since the mutations that the omicron variant presents in the viral spicule predispose the virus to escape from neutralizing antibodies, and in a situation of loss of activity, the amount of these antibodies becomes decisive. After receiving a new immunization we can increase the amount of these neutralizing antibodies considerably. Although the cellular response generated by vaccination remains intact, something that we still cannot fully guarantee, losing part of our humoral immune response against the virus does not help.
We must also remember that there are vulnerable populations that despite having been vaccinated several times do not develop neutralizing antibodies and, therefore, present a greater risk of infection and severe disease. Protecting these vulnerable populations involves containing the transmission of the virus. Even if this variant is ultimately less aggressive, its increased community transmission will wreak havoc in our hospitals if we do not react in time. This less serious observation is only drawn from a South African study in a group of young patients, who therefore have a lower risk of developing severe disease to start with. The combination of a variant with the potential to better escape the antibodies generated by current vaccines, along with a higher transmission rate is very bad news. The risk that health systems collapse again is real, and that is why we must make a global effort to prevent new infections, which will become more frequent and common as the new variant is imposed in parallel to the delta. It is in our hands to reduce social contacts, use a mask, ventilate closed places well and wash our hands constantly. Only with these prevention measures together with an ambitious vaccination program that reaches the whole world will we be able to contain this new wave and stop the spread of the virus.
Nuria Izquierdo-Useros She is a doctor in biology, head of the emerging pathogens group at IrsiCaixa.
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Coordination and writing: Victoria Toro.
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