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Episode #64 - Why are experts concerned about Omicron?

20 January 2022 | Science conversation

Summary

If Omicron is less severe, why are people ending up in the hospital and dying from it? Is it true that everyone will eventually get Omicron? Why is it important to reduce transmission? WHO's Dr Maria Van Kerkhove explains in Science in 5. 

Podcast

Transcript

Vismita Gupta-Smith

We're talking about Omicron today. If it is a less severe variant, why are people still ending up in hospitals and why is it still killing people? And also, if it is this transmissible, can we really protect ourselves? Hello and welcome to Science in 5. I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith. We are talking to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove. Welcome, Maria. Maria, let's start with if Omicron is less severe, why are people still dying from it?

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

Hi Vismita, thanks for having me again. So Omicron is the latest variant of concern, and we have increasing information that Omicron is less severe than Delta, but it is still a dangerous virus. People who are infected with Omicron have the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic infection all the way through severe disease and death. What we are learning is that people with underlying conditions, people with advanced age, people who are unvaccinated can have a severe form of COVID-19 following infection from Omicron. And so we know that people are still being hospitalized with this variant of concern, Omicron, as well as dying. So, it is important that we have information that is out there that is accurate, that does suggest, of course, that it is less severe than Delta, but that does not mean that it is mild.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Maria, we are seeing these reports that because it's so transmissible, eventually everyone might get it. Is that true? And if it is true, then why take protective measures?

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

We are certainly seeing with Omicron that there is a significant growth advantage compared to other variants of concern. Omicron is overtaking Delta in terms of circulation, and it is very efficiently transmitted between people. It doesn't mean that everybody will eventually get Omicron, but we certainly are seeing high cases and surges of cases around the world. This is putting a significant burden on our health care systems, which are already significantly overburdened given that we're entering into the third year of this pandemic. And if people can't receive the proper care that they need, then more people will end up with severe disease and dying, and that's something we want to prevent. So it doesn't necessarily mean that everybody will get Omicron. This is why we, as WHO, are working with partners around the world to have a comprehensive strategy to reduce your exposure and reduce the opportunities for you to get infected. First and foremost, we know that vaccination is incredibly protective against severe disease and death, but it also does prevent some infections and some onward transmission. But it's not perfect in terms of preventing infections and transmission. This is why we also recommend making sure people protect themselves against exposure. Physical distancing, wearing of a well-fitted mask over your nose and mouth, making sure that you have clean hands, avoiding crowds, working from home if you can, getting tested and making sure that you seek appropriate care where needed. All of those measures, this layered approach are ways in which you can keep yourself safe and also protect yourself from getting infected and passing the virus to somebody else.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Maria, speak to us about why it's important to reduce transmission of Omicron.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

It's important that we reduce transmission of Omicron for a number of reasons. First, we want to prevent people from getting infected because there is a risk that you can develop severe disease. There are ways in which we can prevent that but you are still at a risk of developing disease. And if you have underlying conditions or have an advanced age, if you're not vaccinated, you could develop severe disease. Your risk is higher of developing severe disease. The second reason is that we don't understand completely the impact of post-COVID condition or long COVID. So people who are infected with this virus have a risk of developing longer term consequences, which we call post-COVID condition. And we really are only beginning to understand this. So there's a lot to learn about this and your risk of developing post-COVID condition, of course, is dependent on your risk of getting infected in the first place. So you want to prevent that. Third, is that getting infected and having a huge case burden, this surge of cases that we are seeing with Omicron significantly burdens our health systems as well as other essential services that are operating. The large number of cases are really making it difficult for hospitals to operate, for services to be online, you know, public transportation, making sure we have groceries in our grocery store, schools, et cetera.

And lastly, the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it has to change. So this virus is circulating at an incredibly intense level around the world for a number of reasons. But the more the virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change. Omicron will not be the last variant that you will hear us discuss, and the possibility of future emergence of variants of concern is very real. And more variants that emerge, we don't understand what those the properties of those variants may be. Certainly, they will be more transmissible because they will need to overtake variants that are currently circulating. They could become more or less severe, but they could also have properties of immune escape. So we want to reduce the risk of future emergence of variants of concern.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Thank you, Maria. That was Science in 5 today. Until next time then. Stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science. 

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