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Omicron: What We Know and Don’t Know

COVID-19 Insights December 06, 2021
COVID-19 Insights December 06, 2021
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As cases of the Omicron variant continue to appear in the United States and Canada, medical authorities are keeping a close eye on what it will mean as the world enters the third year of the pandemic.

“With Omicron, there's more that we don't know than we know right now,” said Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD, on a BMO call to discuss the new Omicron variant and what it will mean for the recovery from COVID-19 from a health, markets and economic perspective.

In terms of raw data, the U.S. is currently seeing a seven-day average of 100,000 cases per day and 1,000 deaths per day, with much of those coming from a handful of states that have either higher population or lower vaccination rates, or a combination of the two. Looking at immunization, 71 percent of the American population has had one dose and 60 percent are fully vaccinated, although 86 percent of the over-65 population are fully vaccinated.

Comparatively, Canada is averaging 3,500 cases per day and 20 deaths per day, and while the majority of new cases are coming out of Ontario and Quebec, Alberta has the highest number of cases per 100,000 people. In terms of immunization, 89 percent of Canadians over the age of 12 have had their first dose, and 86 percent are fully vaccinated. However, numbers for the entire population are lower at this point, mainly due to a later vaccine rollout for children aged 5-11, which only happened two weeks ago.

According to Dr. Whyte, the U.S. is not yet where it should be, both in terms of case counts and deaths. “Most experts agree that 60 percent for two doses is too low, and that's what's allowing the virus to live, to infect other people and mutate,” he explained.

More Widespread Than We Think

Omicron is called a variant of concern for a reason. There are 30 mutations to the spike protein, which is what the virus uses to latch on to a person’s lungs and cause the damage it does. Compare that to the four mutations on the Delta variant spike protein and it’s easy to see why scientists are concerned.

However, while Omicron appears to be more transmissible than the Delta variant, which was already more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain, Dr. Whyte noted that it may not be more virulent. It will take scientists another week to determine the effectiveness of the current vaccines on Omicron, but for now, Dr. Whyte urges vigilance, vaccination, masking, and the use of rapid testing to monitor areas where community transmission remains high.

Vaccination Remains Key

Dr. Whyte said vaccination remains a top priority to beating the pandemic.  “Remember: viruses have to find a host to mutate and when they mutate, they become stronger. It's kind of like survival of the fittest – that's why vaccination is so important.”

He said it’s important to note that the key metrics to pay attention to are hospitalizations and deaths, rather than cases alone. That’s because the first two metrics are what clog the healthcare system and lead to larger, systemic impacts on the population. When stroke victims and cancer patients, for example, can’t access the health services they need, overall health outcomes deteriorate.

Path to Safety

Despite the ups and downs of the pandemic, Dr. Whyte noted important innovation and collaboration from the biopharmaceutical sector, including the growing success of therapeutics and anti-virals.

“That’s one of the ways, given vaccine hesitancy around the world, that is going to help get this virus under control, and ultimately get it to a point where it’s at an endemic level,” he said.

He also underscored why vaccine equity will be critical to emerging from the pandemic. According to Dr. Whyte, in many low-income countries, only about 8 percent of the population are vaccinated, noting that as long as immunization rates are low in a large part of the world’s population, variants will continue to emerge.

“Right now, the vaccines are holding their own,” he explained. “But if we continue to get variants every month, for another year, I'm not sure that will be the case. That's why it's so important to get this under control.”

Read more


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