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Opinion: What the Omicron variant means for the holidays | Top stories

Opinion: What the Omicron variant means for the holidays

| Breaking News Updates | World News

To understand where we are and where we are going, it helps to understand the science behind Omicron and how quickly we can expect answers.

The discovery of this variant is impressive in itself. It was identified when South African scientists who carried out regular surveillance saw an increase in Covid-19 cases in Gauteng province. They genotyped the incoming tests in just 36 hours, quickly identifying the dozens of mutations that are putting the public health community on alert. This speed of genetic sequencing was largely unknown before the Covid-19 pandemic. The world should feel indebted to the scientists of the Genomic Surveillance Network in South Africa and the private Lancet laboratories.
But the genetic sequence is only the first step. As humans are well aware, our genetic sequence isn’t the only thing that determines how we look and how we work. So we need to do more work to find answers to the questions that really matter about the Omicron variant. It takes time and is not easy.

The next big question we try to answer is, how easily does this new variant spread or, in scientific terms, how “transmissible” is it? Do mutations actually help it “stick” to the airways more easily or replicate more efficiently?

This is an important question because if a virus spreads easily, it makes more people sick, especially if they are not vaccinated, unmasked, or have waning immunity. (This is what made the Delta variant so bad.)
Communicability seems in some ways the easiest to understand: we think of it as an old-fashioned epidemiology, in which we contact traces, count the number of people who get sick and determine their characteristics, and then – as we go. as we accumulate cases – begin to approximate the reproduction number. But the best estimates are also based on other things (like social density), as well as our own behavior (like wearing a mask).
Scientists are working hard to get this information, but accurate data takes time and we should expect our estimates to continue to change. For now, we are monitoring the speed of propagation in South Africa and elsewhere to calculate an estimate on the back of the envelope. It doesn’t look good. A preliminary model suggests that the Omicron spreads twice as easily as the Delta variant. This is the reason why many of us scientists are warning people to disguise themselves in public and seek their recall. We want to avoid propagation if the real numbers are close to what the initial calculations suggest.
We also want to know if Omicron makes people sicker than previous variants. This question can go unanswered for months, as the severity of the disease is influenced by so many factors: who is infected, how overwhelmed the local hospital system is, the prevalence of vaccination and previous infections, and whether mildly symptomatic people tested.
Six months after its discovery, we’re still debating whether the Delta variant is making people sicker. But we obviously can’t wait months to make decisions on what to do. So we have to act ‘as if’ for now. That’s why President Joe Biden on Thursday announced new measures, including measures to ensure that more American adults receive their booster shots and that more children between the ages of 5 and 11 receive the vaccine, an expansion of free home tests, etc. I hope more will come.
Which brings me to the biggest unanswered question most of us have: How well do our Covid-19 vaccines protect us from Omicron. This response, too, will change over time. Current analyzes are complicated by the fact that most people in southern Africa – where community spread has been identified – are unvaccinated, thanks to continued vaccine apartheid, which describes the institutionalized racial segregation that existed in southern Africa. South for almost 50 years. Therefore, it becomes more difficult to determine the effectiveness of vaccines. Unfortunately, this setting – where many have already been infected with other variants – also allows us to examine whether a previous infection protects against the Omicron variant. So far the signs are that it may not be. In other words, get your first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, if you haven’t already. And then take your booster, if you can.

So where does that leave us all – including me – as we get ready for the holidays?

While we wait for the data, basic safeguards remain your best bet. All signs point to the same old strategies (masks in indoor public places, rapid tests, ventilation and, of course, vaccines) are still the most important in stopping the spread of this airborne virus. Additionally, the Delta variant is still with us, accounting for 99.9% of daily cases in the United States, and these safety measures work to protect us well from Delta.

Plus, if you live in an area of ​​the world where vaccines are readily available, now is the time to get a booster – any booster – to increase your chances of fighting the new Omicron variant.

If you’re fully immunized and planning vacation trips, it’s honestly too early to give definitive advice. I advise people to consider their cancellation options, but not to put the kibosh on this family reunion just yet – assuming everyone has at least received their first round of shots.

Here is my last tip. None of us anticipate a return to 2020 style lockdowns. We have a lot more to prevent and treat the virus now. But support me – and with other scientists, doctors and public health professionals – as we do our best to differentiate between expecting the worst and hoping for the best. Tips may change, but we’re doing our best as quickly as possible.

After all, we were all looking forward to a more normal holiday season too.

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