Could Omicron bring the pandemic to an end?

Absolutely nobody can definitively answer this with robust reasoning based on what is known at this point in time, but IT IS a possibility.

We should act with caution but also with hope in our hearts.

Now some explanation, first an apposite anecdote.

My first job after my PhD was researching the viral cause of an epizootic (epidemic in lower order animals) disease in Australian prawn farms which had rapidly brought the industry to its knees with entire crops lost. Basic infection control was used once the disease recognised – emergency harvest the partially grown crop of prawns, kill the remainder of stock along with everything living in the ponds and disinfection of equipment with chlorine (ie eliminate the virus), and biosecurity to attempt to prevent reintroduction.

But there was an incomplete and confused picture of what was causing the disease – though by looking back through early cases I observed lesions which my boss had missed which clarified the picture at least to me (ie the main virus was present earlier than originally believed) – and given our limited range of tools to work with viruses in crustaceans, it really took considerable time to come up with tools to help farmers manage the disease.

Coincidentally, the main causative virus was related to the coronavirus family.

Before we really developed tools to help manage the disease in addition to the general biosecurity/infection control measures, however, something happened in the way the virus interacted with prawns in farms so that the disease became less severe and successful crops were achieved even when the virus was reintroduced (in stock or with other host crustaceans in the environment).In other words, nature solved the problem by facilitating a new equilibrium between the host and virus.

It is this same process that may be at work with Omicron. It is possible that Omicron has stumbled upon – remember, although scientist can talk about evolution in a way that it seems as if it occurs according to some plan but it is in fact random and based on probabilities of surviving to reproduce relative to environmental factors – a form that is highly efficient at spreading itself around while making proportionally fewer people really sick and dying.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE OF CAUTION on Omicron, it remains to be seen if that is true in all populations of people in all regions of the world!

HENCE THE NEED FOR CAUTION, especially given that it seems very clear that Omicron definitely is much more transmissible.

That caution must be heard in Australia where we have proportionally more older, vulnerable people and where we have not suffered the loss and disruption from previous major waves, so we have much less immunity from prior infection. We do, however, have high vaccination rates, though we are still to fully understand how effective will be the vaccines at reducing the likelihood of severe disease from Omicron.

IF Omicron is SIGNIFICANTLY LESS VIRULENT, then it’s emergence and rapid global spread is a major development as it will be similar to quickly vaccinating the whole world – INCLUDING the poor nations which WERE DENIED fair access to vaccines – though we should not lose sight that very sadly some will also be lost to Omicron.

The initial spread will stress the health care system, and especially our brave medical heroes who have delivered so compassionately for humanity, coming as it does in so many regions on the heals of major waves with Delta, but then we might all enjoy a respite as the virus then spreads like a serious cold/flu.

Of course, we will always be prone to flare-ups of different strains, just like for other viruses, but the widespread immunity from Omicron and vaccination might be enough to spare us from further major disruptions, especially since we are all inculcated with a higher level of hygienic understanding and habit than before.

It is also important at this point to recognise that all of this could have been much worse given that the original SARS virus had a mortality rate of 10% of people infected, and the similar MERS virus had a mortality rate of 40%. The best data from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic showed a mortality rate of 1.25% in rich countries, with greater proportions of older people more susceptible to severe disease, and 0.25% in poor regions.

Clearly we must stay vigilant to the threat these bat and other mammal coronaviruses pose to us, just as my friend Dr Shi Zhengli long argued before COVID-19’s emergence.

Finally, as an Australian, and given I have not held back on the politics surrounding all of this, it is worth pointing out that if this is the course that the pandemic takes, then Messrs Morrison and Perrottet will have been incredibly lucky as their actions in insisting on lessening measures and/or resistance to increasing measures as Omicron began to spread like wildfire was incredibly reckless in my view. Although, being politicians, they will act as if they were all-knowing, and that their plan was successful, they were in fact as clueless as Morrison was in March 2020 when he told everyone to enjoy the opening round of the NRL and the Formula 1.

My hope is that Australians remember this truth.

And if the pandemic does not follow this course, and Omicron proves disruptive without a significant improvement after its wave, ie it is followed by yet another disruptive wave of COVID-19, well just remember everything we have learned and done together to help humanity to minimise loss and human impacts in this pandemic, and know that we can and will keep that up until we see off this threat and prepare for the next ones.

With all my love,

Happy holidays and Happy New Year (to those who observe the Gregorian calendar)

Take care and stay safe

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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