Covid-19 coronavirus: Why one expert says Omicron variant ‘may signal the end of Covid’

Health experts in South Africa, where the new Omicron Covid variant was first identified, have expressed hope that a massive surge in infections throughout their country will not be matched by increases in hospitalisations and deaths.

One leading voice even believes Omicron could, counterintuitively, spell “the end of Covid”.

Governments around the world have reacted with caution to the emergence of Omicron. Many countries have reimposed border restrictions while they wait to see whether the variant’s large number of mutations make it more dangerous than previous forms of Covid – deadlier, more transmissible or better able to evade the vaccines.

Australia has introduced temporary bans on travel from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique.

The federal government has also “paused” plans to ease border restrictions for fully vaccinated visa holders.

New Zealand has ruled that only citizens will be allowed to travel here from: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.

They will also be required to stay in managed isolation for a full 14-day period and undergo testing.

People already in transit will also need to go into MIQ.

Clearly, the world is worried. But it’s possible that Omicron is no more virulent, or perhaps less virulent, than previous Covid variants.

Dr Richard Friedland is CEO of the Netcare Group, which operates South Africa’s largest private healthcare network, including more than 50 hospitals.

South Africa is currently in the midst of its fourth Covid wave. In the three previous waves, large increases in the Covid positivity rate were followed by similarly worrying increases in hospital admissions throughout Netcare’s network.

This time, Friedland says, that does not appear to be happening.

“If, in the second and third wave, we’d seen these levels of positivity to tests conducted, we would have seen very significant hospital admissions, and we’re not seeing that,” he said, as quoted by Bloomberg News.

“So I actually think there is a silver lining here, and this may signal the end of Covid-19, with it attenuating itself to such an extent that it is highly contagious but does not cause severe disease. That’s what happened with Spanish flu.”

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed an estimated 25-50 million people. By 1920, it had evolved into a significantly less deadly form, which essentially only caused the regular flu.

“We are seeing breakthrough infections of people who have been vaccinated, but the infections we’re seeing are very mild to moderate,” said Friedland.

“So for healthcare workers who have had boosters, it’s mostly mild. I think this whole thing has been so poorly communicated, and so much panic generated.

“It’s early days, but I’m less panicked. It feels different to me on the ground.”

Friedland made similarly hopeful remarks during an interview with South Africa’s 567AM radio earlier this week.

“If we can get a variant that overtakes Delta that doesn’t cause severe illness, I think we’ll be dealing with a flu-like pandemic,” he said.

“This is potentially the evolution of what we saw with the Spanish flu, that it eventually didn’t burn itself out, but it became a lot less virulent.”

He is not alone in his cautious optimism. For example immunologist Shabir Madhi, an expert from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, told Nature he expected to see “a surge of cases” due to Omicron but an “unhinging of the case rate in the community compared to the hospitalisation rate”.

He said anecdotal evidence thus far indicated most breakthrough Omicron infectious result in only mild symptoms.

“For me, that is a positive signal,” he said.

For now, however, there is a dearth of solid data on the Omicron variant. Scientists are scrambling to come up with solid conclusions regarding its transmissibility, severity and ability to evade the vaccines.

The variant was only reported for the first time on November 24. The World Health Organisation swiftly declared it a variant of concern, based on preliminary evidence that it spreads more quickly than other strains.

“Some variants of concern eventually turned out to be not as severe as feared, and so were no longer classified as a variant of concern. We are still learning about Omicron and do not yet know how it will affect the pandemic,” the Australian government currently advises.

“We are monitoring the evolving situation overseas and working closely with the WHO. We have very strong networks with medical and scientific experts around the world, and we are learning about this new variant in real time.

“Preliminary evidence indicates that Omicron may only lead to mild symptoms among most people who contract it.

“There is no evidence to date that the vaccines Australians have been given are any less effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalisation or death from Omicron.

“We are working to find out how effective vaccines currently approved for use in Australia are at protecting people against the effects of this variant.”

Back in South Africa, a word of warning from Dr Marc Mendelson, head of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town.

“The only ones putting their hands on their hearts and telling the world, ‘Don’t worry, this is going to be mild,’ haven’t learned enough humility yet in the face of this virus,” Dr Mendelson said.

“It’s always nice to hope, but don’t set everything on this, because I think your hopes could be dashed.”


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