17 December 2021 | Science conversation
We're doing an update on Omicron in Science in 5 today. Hello, I'm
Vismita Gupta-Smith and we are talking to Dr Maria Van Kerkhove. Is Omicron
more severe? Is it more transmissible? And how can you protect yourself? Welcome,
Maria. Maria, what do we know so far about the transmissibility of Omicron?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
So, thanks Vismita for having me. We're learning a lot about the Omicron
variant every day. In terms of transmissibility, we are seeing a really
increased growth rate of Omicron over other variants of concern. These are some
of the sharpest increases that we've seen to date. We do know that it has what
we call a growth advantage over Delta. And what this means is that we're seeing
a large increase in cases where Omicron is detected. At the time of filming
this Omicron has been detected in more than 77 countries, but it's likely that
it's present in other countries as well. The big question right now is how will
Omicron compete with other variants that are circulating in populations? For
example, will Omicron outcompete Delta or not? It's still a little bit early
for us to have a full understanding, but what we can say is that some of the
mutations that are identified in Omicron will provide a growth advantage, will
allow it to be more transmissible. So, this is a concern that we have and as we
know, more cases, if there's more increased transmissibility, which is what we
are seeing, we'll have more cases. More cases mean more hospitalizations and
more hospitalizations can put health care systems that are already overburdened
into a state where people will not get the appropriate care that they need.
Maria, does Omicron cause more severe disease? And what are the symptoms
we are seeing so far?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
We're still learning about severity as well. We do know that people with
Omicron can have the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic
infection, mild infection, people needing hospitalization, and people have died
from Omicron. We do have initial reports that suggest that Omicron is less
severe compared to Delta. However, if again, if we have more cases, more cases
mean more hospitalizations, and if a health care system is overburdened, people
will die because they won't get the appropriate care that they need. So, it's
early to tell whether or not Omicron is more or less severe, but we do have
some initial reports that it is less severe. Now, don't be fooled. Even if we
have a virus that causes less severe disease, this virus can affect vulnerable
populations. And we know people with underlying conditions, people of advanced
age, if they are infected with any variant of SARS-CoV-2, including Omicron, they
are at an increased risk of developing severe disease. So, it is really
critical that even if we do see more mild disease, we still do everything that
we can to reduce transmission in all populations, people who are vaccinated, as
well as people who are not vaccinated. In terms of disease presentation, there
are many studies that are underway that are looking at this and people who are
infected with Omicron compared to other variants. We have not seen a change in
the disease profile. For example, we haven't seen a change in the symptoms that
people present with Omicron compared to Delta. So you won't be able to tell the
difference. So, the best thing for you to do is to keep yourself safe, get
vaccinated when you can and make sure that you take steps to reduce your
exposure to this virus.
Maria, what can people do to protect themselves against Omicron? And
what about the current batch of vaccines?
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove
So there's many things that people can do to keep themselves safe. First of all, is get vaccinated. Now there are many studies that are underway that are looking at vaccine effectiveness against Omicron. And these studies are currently underway. We don't have that complete picture yet, but what we do know is that it is better to be vaccinated than not. And what is really critical in all countries is that those people who are at risk, those who are over the age of 60, those who have underlying conditions receive their vaccines and making sure they get their first and second doses. It's really, really critical that everybody get vaccinated when it's their turn. And at the same time, while we increase vaccination coverage among those who are most at risk in all countries, we also have to take steps to drive transmission down everywhere. And this is using simple measures: physical distancing, wearing of a well-fitted mask with clean hands, avoiding crowds, improving ventilation where we live, where we work, where we study. The biggest factor right now is making sure you reduce your exposure to the virus, no matter what variant is circulating. Everything we do right now, Delta variant is dominant worldwide,
that also needs to be brought under control, and everything that we do right now for Delta will benefit Omicron no matter how it unfolds, no matter what we learn about it. So, do your best to keep yourself safe.
Get vaccinated when you can and make sure that you reduce your exposure
to this virus where you live.
Thank you, Maria. That was an update on the Omicron variant. Remember that as more information comes in, we will make it available to you on our channels. Until next time, then stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.