A few days reviewing the available information concerning the newest COVID-19 virus variant has provided little insight, but lots of opinions. Three perspectives caught my eye this morning.
The first is from Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the Chair of the South African Medical Association who told several news organizations, “local physicians do not feel panicked about the new virus” and “the patients seen so far have had ‘extremely mild symptoms.’ ”
This is impressive since only a quarter of adults in the country have been vaccinated. Therefore, most of the infections in South Africa have been in unvaccinated individuals.
In contrast, New York Gov. Hochul preemptively cancelled all elective surgeries in the state to “deal with staffing shortages and boost bed capacity amid an anticipated ‘spike’ in new cases and the emergence of the new variant in South Africa.”
Finally, I also saw the following quote from Tillman Gerngross, a Dartmouth professor and biotech entrepreneur whose expertise is in making antibody drugs (but who has not been involved in COVID-19 vaccine development). He was clearly pushing the panic button.
From my perspective, despite all of these pronouncements, we really don’t know what disease severity this variant will cause, how rapidly it will spread, and whether it will escape immunity. The best news, however, is it’s not March 2020, and we are much better prepared for whatever happens.
Several things to consider:
- No COVID-19 variant has shown complete resistance to vaccines. Booster shots have also increased and broadened immune protection. It is unlikely that this variant will escape immunity especially in people who have gotten boosters.
- The new anti-viral drugs should work just as well with this variant as with earlier COVID-19 viruses.
- We will be able to screen for this virus with the same tests that we are using now.
- If there are outbreaks, masks work well to temper infections without lockdowns.
- The population has lots of herd immunity from prior infections and vaccines. This is very different from the situation in the first quarter of 2020 when no one had any immunity.
- If new Omicron specific vaccines are really needed, they can be produced in RNA vaccines in three to four months.
There are really only two groups who should really fear this variant. One group is unvaccinated individuals, particularly adults, without any COVID-19 immunity. The second is our health care providers, especially those who work in intensive care units and care for unvaccinated individuals who get infected.
Do everyone a favor right now and prepare for whatever happens with this new virus; get a vaccine and save an ICU bed.