Omicron and Waning Immunity… What It Means for You
One of the biggest frustrations we’ve had the past two years has been the unknowns about COVID-19.
In late 2019 it was a brand new virus. Scientists and medical personnel worked around the clock to determine a variety of things about it.
Including its symptoms and how severe they might be. As well as how – and how quickly – the virus could be transmitted.
Plus which precautions were most effective against it. And whether vaccines could be produced soon enough to slow transmission.
What Do We Know So Far?
Two years later, some of those same questions are still being asked. Especially as new variants have developed. Including the highly contagious Delta variant. And the newer and even more contagious Omicron variant.
Today I want to talk about this latest variant. As well as something we’ve been hearing a lot about lately: waning immunity.
First let’s discuss the Omicron variant. This is a fluid subject. Some of what I’m writing may have changed by the time you read this.
I’ll try to stick with what is understood about this variant by a majority of scientists studying it.
New Variant Spreading Around World
The Omicron variant is also known as SARS-CoV-2. It’s the latest coronavirus strain designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Every day more countries are reporting cases. The first case in America was discovered December 1 in California. The fully vaccinated individual had recently traveled from South Africa.
Shortly thereafter, cases were detected in several other states.. Omicron has now emerged in 47 states. And in at least 77 countries.
Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky predicted it would become the dominant COVID variant in the U.S. in a few weeks. But it has already happened, accounting for 73% of new cases as of yesterday. Cardiologist Dr. Eric Topol says Americans are “sitting ducks for the next wave” of COVID due to Omicron.
50+ Mutations in 1 Variant
The biggest concern about Omicron is the number of its mutations. The Delta variant has only two. Omicron has more than 50 including 30 on the spike protein. That’s the structure used by a virus to latch onto and get inside cells under attack.
These extra mutations are allowing the virus to cause new surges of infections. In addition, Delta is causing more than 100,000 new cases in America per day. Hospitalizations and deaths are also up. About 80% of ICU beds are currently filled, with one in five being COVID cases.
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins said Omicron is so contagious it could potentially cause hundreds of thousands, and up to a million, new cases per day.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the director-general at WHO. He said, “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.” Cases are doubling in less than three days in some countries.
Dr. Elizabeth Claybourne is an emergency physician. She’s based at the University of Maryland Capital Region Medical Center. She said, “What we’re preparing for is a potential perfect storm with the Omicron variant.”
Omicron’s changes from the original coronavirus could enable it to avoid the body’s defenses. Whether those defenses are from surviving COVID-19 or from vaccination.
Will Vaccines Work With Omicron?
It’s too soon to know for sure, but most medical experts are saying the current approved vaccines are not as effective against Omicron infection as they are for Delta. But they are helpful in reducing hospitalizations. More on that in a moment.
Vaccine manufacturers claim they could produce an altered vaccine if necessary. It would specifically target Omicron. But it would probably take at least 100 days.
In the meantime, the U.S. has instituted travel bans involving numerous African countries. Mainly to buy time while manufacturers work on Omicron-specific vaccines.
President Joe Biden said he will not order shutdowns or lockdowns. He’s encouraging vaccinations, boosters and testing. He did extend a mask mandate for public transportation through mid-March. He was scheduled to address the nation about this subject last night.
One silver lining is that most Omicron cases detected so far have been “mild.” But researchers at Imperial College London say they see “no evidence of Omicron having lower severity than Delta.”
Immunity Doesn’t Last Forever
As promised, let’s discuss waning immunity. After people contract a virus such as COVID-19, their bodies develop antibodies. They can stave off another infection from the same virus.
The same is true with vaccines. They’re designed to help the body build up a defense against a specific virus.
But in both cases, immunity wanes over time. That’s why the medical community urges boosters. Both for those who contracted the coronavirus and those who were vaccinated.
A study of 7,800 veterans was released last month. It found vaccines administered in the U.S. had efficacy cut by one-half or more six months after the final dose.
CDC Director Weighs In
Are vaccines designed to combat a strain like Delta effective against a new virus strain? Such as Omicron? That’s what the medical community is trying to figure out.
Doctors say even if current vaccines are not as effective against Omicron, they could help produce less severe symptoms. That’s due to the body’s “memory” B and T-cells.
They say boosters can elevate the level of antibodies and memory immune cells. And in some cases strengthen their potency.
Walensky said this. “The more mutations you have in a variant, the more you would like to bolster your immunity.” That would provide “as much immunity as possible to overcome that variant.”