Omicron Variant – Scourge or Savior?
A few weeks ago, we celebrated Thanksgiving, with gratitude for our many blessings, although these are becoming scarcer over the past two years. At the same time, we received news of a new COVID variant. It seems the world is on some type of Chinese gift registry where we receive quarterly presents, starting with the original Chinese coronavirus, followed every few months by a new variant and subsequent lockdowns, restrictions, and mandates.
This coronavirus is acting more like a herpes virus, the one that gives us cold sores that seem to come and go on their own cycle. But these COVID variants are far more bothersome than a lip blister as they are disrupting travel, commerce, and life in general for much of the world.
The latest COVID variant is called Omicron, further down the Greek alphabet from familiar Delta and Lambda variants. The ever-woke and deferential to China, World Health Organization intentionally skipped two Greek letters ahead of Omicron, Nu, and Xi. Nu might be confused with “new”, although nothing about current responses is new, including travel bans, masks, and mandates. Letter Xi might give unwanted credit to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, although given COVID’s origin, it would be a fitting tribute.
Is the Omicron variant a Christmas scourge or savior? Some scientists think it’s a lump of coal in a stocking on Christmas morning. As reported by the BBC,
Omicron has such a long list of mutations that it was described by one scientist as "horrific", while another told me it was the worst variant they'd seen.
It has now been detected in more than 30 countries and there are signs it may be able to bypass some of our immunity.
Then in the next paragraph, they decide it’s not so bad after all,
But there are also claims that it could be milder than earlier versions of Covid, such as Delta.
Which is it? And if it is indeed as mild as many claim, could it save the world by pushing us closer to herd immunity?
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The scary bit about Omicron is the high number of mutations, an "unusual constellation of mutations" and that it was "very different" from other variants that have circulated. Specifically, it contains 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein. This is important because the vaccines encourage the body to create antibodies to the spike protein.
The current crop of vaccines stimulates antibody production to the Alpha variant, the original Chinese coronavirus that plagued the world last year and was the dominant strain during vaccine development. With 30 new mutations on the spike protein, the vaccines are making antibodies to something that no longer exists, like sending the police to apprehend a burglar who is long gone from the crime scene.
Compare this to natural immunity after a previous infection, a concept conveniently ignored by the medical and political establishments. There are 29 coronavirus proteins and natural immunity likely provides antibody, T-cell, and B-cell immunity to most or all of these proteins, unlike the vaccine which only targets the spike protein, and one no longer in existence, replaced by successive Greek letter variants.
If the spike protein mutates, the naturally immune have resistance to all the other proteins, unless they all mutate at once, a highly unlikely scenario.
For those infected and recovered, their natural immunity may be robust and long-acting. Emory University acknowledged, “COVID-19 survivors may possess wide-ranging resistance to the disease.” For those who want more data, here is a collection of 81 research studies confirming natural immunity to COVID as equal or superior to vaccine immunity.
The NIH agrees. In January 2021 they reported, “The immune systems of more than 95% of people who recovered from COVID-19 had durable memories of the virus up to eight months after infection.” The 8-month figure is important since COVID had only been around about that long, meaning there was no waning of immunity to date.
Compare that to what we are seeing with the vaccines where “the immune protection offered by two doses of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine drops off after two months or so” according to CNN. Natural immunity can last decades, as reported in Nature,
Patients who recovered from SARS (the disease associated with SARS-CoV infection) possess long-lasting memory T cells that are reactive to the N protein of SARS-CoV 17 years after the outbreak of SARS in 2003.
This paper was published in 2020, 17 years after the 2003 SARS outbreak, meaning that coronavirus immunity showed no decline to date and could very well last a lifetime.
Given that viruses typically mutate in a direction or more transmissibility and less lethality, Omicron may be our savior. This concept is known as Muller’s ratchet, named after an American geneticist. As Becker’s Healthcare reported,
New research from Cleveland Clinic suggests that early mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were deadlier but quickly overtaken by more transmissible variants, which may explain why mortality has decreased as the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed.
Could Omicron be our ticket out of the COVID quagmire? Norwegian scientists think so,
COVID experts in Norway say that Omicron variant being highly transmissible but “milder” could prove to be the “best scenario” because it would boost “natural immunity” and bring the end of the pandemic closer.
Dr. Anthony Fauci agrees. Reuters reported, “Fauci says early evidence points to Omicron being more transmissible but less severe.”
Can viruses mutate in the other direction? Yes, but rarely. The AP reports, “There are documented cases of viruses becoming more deadly.” In science, there are always exceptions, just as it can snow in July and be 75 degrees in January, but good science follows the norm, not the exception.
Think of Omicron as an old school vaccine, an attenuated or weakened virus, enough to cause mild disease in the vaccinated, stimulating the immune system to respond, creating long-lasting immunity, but without killing or severely injuring the vaccine recipient. This is how viruses propagate over time, infecting and spreading but without killing their hosts.
This could actually stop COVID, converting it into something more akin to seasonal flu. The rapidly spreading but only mildly virulent Omicron variant may accomplish what the current vaccines do not, potential worldwide natural immunity negating the push for universal vaccination, boosters, and mandates.
I must add the standard and necessary disclaimer that I am not anti-vaccine, having been personally fully vaccinated. Nor am I offering medical advice, only an analysis of this newsworthy issue. Any vaccine decisions should be between you and your physician.
Clearly, the vaccines alone are not putting an end to the current COVID pandemic as lockdowns, quarantines, travel bans, along with vaccine boosters and mandates are still in effect almost two years into the pandemic. Life has not returned to normal as promised by President Biden and others, despite most Americans being vaccinated.
In fact, vaccines are having little positive effect, as described in this Harvard based study recently published in the European Journal of Epidemiology,
At the country-level, there appears to be no discernable relationship between percentage of population fully vaccinated and new COVID-19 cases in the last 7 days. In fact, the trend line suggests a marginally positive association such that countries with higher percentage of population fully vaccinated have higher COVID-19 cases per 1 million people.
In other words, COVID case rates are increasing along with vaccination rates. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? We may not be able to vaccinate our way out of the current pandemic.
Even the CDC acknowledges this inconvenient truth, noting about Omicron, “About 75% of those cases are in people who are fully vaccinated, and one person has been hospitalized.” There is an internet meme circulating which claims Alec Baldwin has killed more people than the Omicron variant. Snopes confirms no Omicron variant deaths thus far.
This is why a mild version of COVID, the Omicron variant, may be the pathway forward, as this USA Today headline suggests, “Omicron could be more contagious, less dangerous. That would be good news for the human race.” And the ultimate Christmas present after a bleak two years.
Hopefully, government and public health officials will acknowledge this pathway forward, rather than repeating the same measures that have thus far been marginally or not effective and continue to crush the wallets and spirits of Americans heading into Christmas.
Brian C Joondeph, MD, is a physician and writer. On Twitter as @retinaldoctor.
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