The Irish Times view on living with new coronavirus variants

The hard reality is that Omicron is unlikely to be the last variation of Sars-CoV-2 to emerge

Passengers get tested for Covid-19 at OR Thambo International Airport in Johannesburg as restrictions on international flights from South Africa started to take effect  after the announcement by local scientists of the new Omicron variant. Photograph: Kim Kudbrook/EPA

Passengers get tested for Covid-19 at OR Thambo International Airport in Johannesburg as restrictions on international flights from South Africa started to take effect after the announcement by local scientists of the new Omicron variant. Photograph: Kim Kudbrook/EPA

 

The ever-changing Covid-19 saga continues: struggling with the transmissibility of the Delta variant, the world now faces a new variant of concern, Omicron. Although it is too early for certainty, the latest version of Sars-CoV-2 seems to be at least as transmissible as Delta. However, the palpable fear among an international range of experts is that the new variant, because it contains a high number of mutations, will trigger a more destructive form of disease.

Researchers spotted Omicron in genome-sequencing data from Botswana. The variant stood out because it contains more than 30 changes to the spike protein – the Sars-CoV-2 protein that recognises host cells and is the main target of the body’s immune responses. The development poses two, as yet unanswered, major questions: does the new variant reduce vaccine effectiveness; and what will the change mean for Covid-19 disease severity?

Scaremongering around Omicron is unhelpful. It has resulted in questionable blame being laid at the door of scientific authorities in South Africa and neighbouring states. World Health Organisation executive director Dr Mike Ryan cautioned against a public overreaction to the Omicron variant.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
824 79

Some new variants will peter out, while others will have characteristics that make them either more infectious or more deadly. But a future variant that completely negates the benefits of existing vaccines is seen as unlikely. Voicing cautious optimism that existing vaccines would prevent serious disease, Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the Omicron variant is unlikely to “reboot” the pandemic in a population that has been widely vaccinated.

After almost two years of the global pandemic, the one constant is an ongoing uncertainty about the future. This is not easy to live with, and the resulting chronic anxiety explains some of the hair- trigger reactions we have seen in recent days. Our collective mental health is under strain and must be a key consideration as Covid-19 uncertainty continues.

We can be reasonably certain that Covid-19 will be a multi-annual disease, peaking every winter just as influenza does. Once or even twice yearly vaccines will be normal. We can also look forward to new drug treatments designed to help those in the early stages of Sars-CoV-2 infection.

Perhaps the most challenging future reality is that mask-wearing and social distancing will remain key. Regardless of any variant’s severity or infectiousness, these community actions are effective at preventing viral spread. It’s undoubtedly a big ask – and one that will require innovative measures by government to place a higher societal value on these collective health practices.

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