The Omicron variant is not a disaster and may even signal the end of the pandemic crisis, say two prominent physicians affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Speaking to international reporters on Zoom through Media Central, Prof. Zvika Granot and Prof. Amnon Lahad said the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is more infectious and less aggressive than previous variants – which is a good sign.
“Usually, viruses that are very aggressive are not very infectious, and viruses that are very infectious are not very aggressive,” said Granot, who heads a developmental biology and cancer research lab at the university.
“We have been living with corona for two years and we’ve seen new variants appearing. By definition, a new variant is more infectious than the previous variant,” he explained.
“Omicron is indeed more infectious than Delta and is overtaking it — but is it more aggressive? This still needs more investigation but at least according to the World Health Organization, there were no deaths from the Omicron variant worldwide as of last week.
“That will certainly change, but if you look at this from the pandemic point of view the end of corona will come when we have a variant that is very infectious with very mild symptoms.”
Moreover, said Granot, “because it’s very infectious, a lot of people will get infected but they’ll have a runny nose and maybe fever for a couple of days and then go back to their normal lives. When this happens, the vast majority is infected and gets over it and develops true herd immunity.
“So in some respects, Omicron may be the light at the end of the tunnel.”
‘Not a catastrophe’
Lahad said that the media and government officials speak of a disaster coming because they see rising numbers of positive PCR tests in countries including Britain and South Africa.
“If we look deeper, we see that while there is an increase in positive PCR tests, the number of severe cases is going down or is at least stable,” said Lahad, who chairs HUJ’s Department of Family Medicine, the National Committee for Primary Care and the Jerusalem district of the Clalit HMO.
“In South Africa, we see the same thing even though their vaccination rate is much lower than Israel’s, and we are starting to see the same thing in Britain. So we have a catastrophe more in public opinion than in what is really happening in the emergency rooms and primary care clinics.”
Given that nearly 60 percent of those who test positive for Omicron have no symptoms, said Lahad, “it seems it’s not such a disaster.”
He said the challenge is not how to control the disease – which Israel has done well through immunizing those most at risk — but to get over the Omicron wave “without causing collateral damage by closing the economy and closing schools and disrupting regular life.”
“I’m trying to convince others that we should not be hysterical, and this is not a disaster that will shut down the medical system,” Lahad said.
Fourth vaccination unwarranted?
Lahad and Granot disagree with the Israeli government’s decision this week to begin offering fourth shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to medical personnel and people over 60.
“About 75% of the people in Israel who got infected with this [Omicron] variant were fully vaccinated, including a booster shot,” Granot pointed out.
He was referring to the initial two doses of the Pfizer vaccine and a third (booster) dose recommended to people vaccinated five or more months previously when it became apparent that the initial immunity wears off in six months.
A recent study showed the first two doses ineffective against Omicron and the third dose somewhat more protective.
Granot said it makes no sense to introduce a fourth shot of a vaccination that was formulated for the original coronavirus strain.
“This virus has mutated and changed and is very different now. It is not as effective as it could be if we had an updated vaccine from Pfizer or Moderna,” he said.
Granot also emphasized that a fourth dose has not been approved by the US FDA.
“No one tested the consequences, benefits or side effects of taking the fourth vaccine. Anyone who takes that shot is experimenting on himself and that is totally unacceptable,” he said.
Lahad added that he believes it is more important to focus on convincing those who are not vaccinated, or not fully vaccinated, to get their initial doses.
“Forcing people already vaccinated to have a fourth dose makes no sense,” Lahad said. “We are doing it backwards — intervention and then research. If we were in a disaster situation it could be justified but I don’t think that’s the case.”
Living with the coronavirus
The two physicians said we may be nearing the post-pandemic stage when we will live with the coronavirus as we do with strains of influenza and other viruses.
“Overall, the way I see it is that the Omicron variant is a step closer to the end of this pandemic,” said Granot. “We just have to wait and see.”
Lahad recommended that people continue masking and keeping distances, “but the main thing is that if you feel even a little sick, stay home and don’t go to the supermarket, your workplace, or school.”