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Friday, January 21, 2022

Four big questions about Omicron

Scientists around the world are keen to understand the Omicron variant, and there are some clearer signs than a week ago.

Today’s newsletter will try to answer four important questions about Omicron with the help of experts. The answers come with a caveat: there is still a lot of uncertainty on almost every aspect of the option. As scientists learn more, I will continue to inform you.

Is Omicron spreading faster than previous options? Yes, apparently.

For example, the number of Covid cases is skyrocketing in South Africa. It is still possible that it will be mirage – and that the world confuses the more normal splash in cases with the effects of the new variant. (Surges do occur frequently for cryptic reasons.) But the evidence for a faster spread of Omicron seems compelling.

“Evidence from South Africa shows that the Omicron variant is spreading faster than the Delta,” Janet Baysman, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told me. Dr. Rebecca Wurtz of the University of Minnesota said, “Omicron is more contagious.”

It is even more unknown why it is spreading so quickly, and there are two likely answers. First, Omicron is technically more infectious – it spreads faster among people without immunity than previous options. The second is known as immune evasion; it describes the notion that vaccinated and previously infected people become infected with Omicron more often than earlier versions of the virus.

Both explanations may be true, and many scientists think both are likely true. But the facts are not clear, and one of the two explanations may turn out to be much more significant than the other. Bottom line: There is no doubt that Omicron is spreading faster than Delta; we’re still not 100 percent sure why, ”Dr. Robert Wachter of the University of California, San Francisco told me.

Is Omicron more serious than previous options? Probably no. But there is less consensus on this issue than on the first issue.

Some scientists believe it is too early to tell whether the average person infected with Omicron is getting worse than the average person infected with earlier versions of the Covid virus. “This is all speculation at the moment,” Dr. Paul Sachs of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told me.

Severe Covid disease often develops in a week or more, and the world knows about Omicron for less than two weeks. “We just didn’t have enough time to see a serious illness develop,” said Dr. Aaron Richterman of the University of Pennsylvania. Initial studies of Omicron patients were also disproportionately conducted from South Africa, where the population is twisted from youth and many people have previously been infected with Delta. Both groups are unlikely to get very sick.

“What is difficult to assess right now,” said Jennifer Nuzzo of Johns Hopkins University, “is how this will happen if or when older and more vulnerable people become infected.”

But other scientists believe the early signs are clearer and more positive. If anything, they say, Omicron may be softer than previous options. Hospitalization and mortality rates in South Africa have not even increased compared to the rise in morbidity. Interestingly, patients report less loss of taste and smell.

Dr. David Dowdy, another epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me that he worked closely with scientists in Tswan, the South African city at the epicenter of the outbreak. His colleagues told him that the number of hospitalizations and the need for oxygen is lower than during the previous waves. “I think the signs are actually extremely optimistic,” he said.

You will hear similar messages in Bloomberg interviews with South African scientists. “It’s still early, but I’m less panicked,” said Richard Friedland, executive director of the nation’s largest network of private healthcare providers. “I feel different on earth.”

In any case, I consider it a mistake to assume that Omicron is more serious than earlier versions of the virus – as is often the case when people hear about a new version. “So far, the signals are a little reassuring about the severity,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN this weekend.

So are vaccinated people protected or not? The answer depends on the meaning of the word “protected”. Is it protected from Covid infection or serious illness?

Read Also:  An army of millions that is implementing China's anti-coronavirus policy at any cost

Available evidence suggests that Omicron may be more likely to infect vaccinated people than earlier versions of the virus, as I mentioned above. However, there is still no indication that Omicron will cause a significant proportion of vaccinated people to develop severe versions of Covid.

“I really think that vaccines will work not so much against infections as against serious illnesses,” Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research told me. Dowdy of Johns Hopkins put it this way: “Our immune systems are designed to protect us from disease, not from infection at all.”

The situation may be similar for unvaccinated people who have had a previous infection, or they may be more vulnerable than vaccinated people to serious Covid. It is not clear.

One disturbing postscript is that even seemingly mild Covid infections can prove fatal to vulnerable people like the elderly. For the same reason, the flu kills large numbers of older people.

The second problem is that the immunity of those vaccinated and previously infected does weaken over time. “Our effective vaccination is declining” due to the weakening of the immune system, – said Topol.

All of this is in favor of being vaccinated even if you are infected, and vaccinating if you meet the criteria. “People need to be told they need to get boosted now, not wait three to four months for a particular Omicron vaccine,” Wachter said.

Do tests for Covid work, including both PCR tests and quick home tests? Yes, judging by the signs, bye.

If this remains true, it will be very helpful. “The proliferation of Omicron will place much more emphasis on rapid testing, as will new oral medications,” Wachter said.

The first signs can be misleading, and we’ll find out more in a few weeks.

For now, vaccinated people can continue to behave as they were, but many need urgent revaccinations. Elderly people and other vulnerable people, such as people on cancer treatment, must continue to exercise caution and often ask others to get tested.

Unvaccinated people remain at significant risk of serious illness. In recent weeks, about 1,000 Americans have died every day from Covid, the vast majority of whom have not been vaccinated.

Look here for the number of cases and the number of deaths in your county.

More virus news:

  • President Biden will meet with Vladimir Putin today via video link to discuss tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

  • Biden will warn Putin that if Russia invades, the West could try to cut it off from the international financial system.

  • Life at the front: dodging bullets and grenades and waiting for an invasion.

  • What drives Putin’s balance on the brink of war?

Erica Bachiochi did not vote for Trump. But since the Supreme Court is willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, she is grateful to those who did it.

“We are not turning into aliens.” Five teenage girls talk about the challenges of growing up, including occasional pain and screaming.

When Alana Haim opened an email from director Paul Thomas Anderson and saw a script featuring a character named “Alana,” she was flattered that he was planning to use her name in the film, she told Lindsay Zoladz of The Times. In fact, Anderson asked Haim – one of the three sisters from the rock band bearing their last name – to star in his next film, Licorice Pizza. She took on the job – her first film – and critics praise her work.

The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was windmill… Here’s today’s puzzle – or you can play it online.

Here’s today’s mini crossword puzzle and clue: Abate (five letters).

If you want to play more, find all our games here.


Thank you for spending some of the morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. – David

PS Ellen Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winning Times Correspondent, joins the science department to talk about mental health.

Here is the first page of today’s press.

The Daily is prosecuting school shootings. In The Ezra Klein Show, I-Jen Poo discusses the child and old age care crisis in America.

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