COVID-19

Danger, spread, vaccine … what we know about the omicron variant

Scientists warn of an optical effect. If the omicron variant is less dangerous but much more contagious, the consequences will remain severe on a collective level.

Is more dangerous?

Now is the great unknown. Clinical data from the last few weeks clearly suggests that omicron is no more dangerous than its predecessors, especially delta. It is “almost certain,” eminent American scientist Anthony Fauci told AFP in early December, even believing it could be less dangerous.

But should we bet on this eventuality? It is a risky bet. Omicron is no longer painless, as evidenced by a first death recorded earlier this week in the UK. Above all, scientists warn against an optical effect. If omicron is less dangerous but much more contagious, the consequences will continue to be severe on a collective level.

“We are concerned that people consider omicron to be benign,” warned the WHO chief. “Even if omicron causes less severe symptoms, the number of cases could again overwhelm unprepared health systems. “

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Rapid propagation

It is obviously very contagious. It was only a hypothesis when it first appeared, but it became a certainty in the first weeks of December, given the epidemic situation in several countries.

Omicron is spreading “at a rate that we have never seen with any other variant” and “is likely to be found in most countries,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO). So far it has been identified in almost 80 countries.

South Africa and its neighbors have seen an outbreak of covid cases with the arrival of omicron, which has also seen a meteoric rise in several European countries.

This is the case in Denmark and the United Kingdom. More broadly, omicron could be dominant in Europe by mid-January, according to comments made this week by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Will it definitely replace Delta? This is a high probability, but scientists suggest other possibilities: that omicron supplants its predecessor for a time but ends up returning it or that the two variants coexist as is the case with certain strains of the seasonal flu virus.

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The effectiveness of vaccines.

This is one of the great challenges that omicron poses, as current vaccines are already losing their efficacy over time against Delta variant infections.

Omichronic mutations greatly reduce the immunity of antibodies to the virus. Consequence: you can probably re-infect people previously infected with the virus and infect large numbers of those vaccinated.

Several recent studies, carried out in the laboratory, support this last hypothesis. They show that the level of antibodies collapses against omicron in people vaccinated with Pfizer / BioNTech, Moderna and even more AstraZeneca or Sinovac.

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Vaccine efficacy against omicron variant: Pfizer presents its first results

It is true that a booster dose seems to clearly increase antibody immunity, as announced by Pfizer and BioNTech in particular, but we are a long way from knowing how long this effect persists over time.

However, this does not mean that vaccines lose all their effectiveness. Because antibodies are only one part of the immune response, which also involves cells called T lymphocytes. More difficult to measure, this “cellular immunity” nonetheless plays a very important role, especially against severe forms of illness.

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