20 December 2022 | Science conversation
We are entering the fourth year of the pandemic. What do we know so far about Omicron?
Are there settings where people are more at risk? And what does the future look like?
Hello and welcome to Science in 5, I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith. We are talking to Dr Maria Van Kerkhove today. Welcome, Maria. Maria, let's start with what do we know so far about Omicron?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
Hi Vismita. Thanks for having me back on Science in 5. Omicron is the latest variant of concern that has been in circulation around the globe for more than a year now. The virus continues to evolve and Omicron continues to evolve. There are more than 500 sub lineages of Omicron that are currently in circulation. Most of these are the BA.5 sub lineages. And we have a global group of individuals around the world that are helping us to track this virus. What we look at is transmissibility. And all of the Omicron sub lineages are more transmissible than the next. This is what these viruses do. They need to infect individuals. But we also look at severity. And what we do know about Omicron in terms of its severity is that there's a similar level of severity of all of these sub lineages. On average, Omicron was less severe than Delta.
But Omicron causes the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic infection or reinfection, as well as severe disease and death. So it's really critical that we do all we can to prevent those deaths from occurring.
And we're also looking at the impact of our interventions, our diagnostics, our therapeutics and our vaccines. And they are holding up very well in terms of our ability to detect this virus around the world. And our vaccines are working incredibly well at preventing severe disease and death.
But it is absolutely critical that surveillance is maintained around the world so that we can track the known sub lineages and be able to detect any new variants of concern that may arise because there still is a risk for further variants of concern to emerge.
Maria, as governments and individuals seem to be dropping precautionary measures. Tell us about settings where people may be more at risk and what we can do to protect ourselves.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
So this is a really critical time right now. As you said, we've entered the fourth year of this pandemic and people are tired of talking about COVID and dealing with this. But I think what's really important to remember is that there's so much that we can do to reduce the spread, not stop the spread, but reduce it and also save lives right now.
It's about the fundamentals. There are riskier locations than others - indoors is riskier than outdoors; crowded settings are riskier than less crowded settings, for example.
But what we need to be able to do is use the tools that exist while we live our lives. Putting on a mask when you're indoors, when you're around others is a rational thing to do, and it's available now because masks are widely available. Making sure that governments invest in ventilation where we live, where we work, where we study.
This remains fundamental for respiratory diseases and will help improve and reduce transmission around the world.
One of the critical things that you can do as an individual is get vaccinated. When we think about vaccination, we have to also consider that 30% of the world has not yet received a single dose. And in every country we are missing really key individuals. We have not reached the targets of vaccination of 70% in every country. At the present time, each week, between 8 and 10,000 people are dying from COVID-19, and a lot of these are preventable.
Maria, paint us a picture of what the future looks like. What does it mean when we say living with COVID-19?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
COVID-19 is here with us to stay. And what we hope is in 2023 that we can end the emergency everywhere. We are in a much better position to do that. Because we know so much more about this virus. Although we don't know everything and we remain humble to learning about this, we have so many tools that can reduce the spread and can save lives now.
You as an individual have a role to play knowing what your risk is, where you live, and taking measures while you live your life to reduce your exposure to the virus.
Making sure that you get vaccinated and receive those full doses can prevent you from getting severe disease and dying. We have to remember that we're entering the fourth year of this pandemic, and COVID-19 is one of the many challenges that we face.
We face other infectious hazards like influenza and RSV and other circulating pathogens. But there are many other crises that we are dealing with. With climate change and floods, droughts, war. And so we have to manage. We have to live with COVID responsibly and manage this disease in the context of everything else.
We at WHO are working very hard with all member states to integrate COVID into strengthened surveillance systems and to strengthen disease control programmes so that they're not standalone programs, but that they are dealt with within strengthened health systems.
Remember, we're all fragile. After four years of this, entering our fourth year of this. And it's important that we be kind to one another. We listen to one another. We help each other through this because we can end this emergency everywhere in 2023.
Thank you, Maria. That was Science in 5 today. Until next time then, stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.