9 Jan 2022

Dr. Gary McLean on the global impact of Omicron

From The Weekend , 8:35 am on 9 January 2022

The Omicron variant has caused chaos across the world, plunging many countries who thought they're on the cusp of controlling Covid-19 back into full public health response mode.

The transmission rate of viruses has changed the game in Europe and in the United Kingdom in particular

While the virus may not be as deadly as the Delta variant the impact it's having on public health systems is serious.

Dr Gary McLean is a professor in molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University and a researcher with Imperial College.

Demonstrators protest in Parliament Square against Covid-19 vaccines, vaccine passports and mandates in London

Photo: AFP

There are signs the numbers of infections in the UK are peaking, he told Emile Donovan

“There's some evidence that it may have plateaued, but you know, with this virus, it can just come back and bite you again and again.

“So, I'd be very cautious about saying that it's peaked here, but certainly it looks like the numbers are suggesting that at least.”

We have learned a number of things about Omicron very quickly, he says

“It's a really, really good spreader or transmitter, this virus is incredible. It does what it does very, very well.

“Number 2; the vaccine-induced immunity, particularly the boosters, if you get that third shot, that can keep you out of hospital - you have 90 percent less chance in ending up in hospital than you would have done with Delta.

“Number 3; you can be re-infected. So, if you've had Covid before that's no sure protection at all, it will bypass that immunity and still infect you.

And number 4, which is possibly the most important, it's potentially a less severe variant disease wise. And so that's one of the positive outcomes from this particular outbreak.”

While Omicron is a still a dangerous virus, it seems to be less severe, McLean says.

“On the balance of the information that's coming out of studies from the hospitalisations and treatment of people from South Africa, and the UK and now Europe, it does look like the disease caused might be less severe than previous variants, including Delta.

“People tend to stay in hospital for less long. And they require less mechanical ventilation and oxygen to get them breathing properly.

“And it is also suggested by the rates of hospitalisation and the death rates as well. They haven't reached the levels that we've seen earlier in the pandemic, despite these really massive case-loads.”

Despite 2000 people a day being admitted to hospital in the UK, he says, there is less fear surrounding Omicron.  

“I think we're in a different situation now than we were a year ago, we've got a lot of people that are vaccinated, other people with some natural immunity from being infected before and that is certainly helping overall.

“And of course, we’re better at treating people in hospital now we know more what to do. And we've got a better armoury of antiviral interventions as well. So, all of that together is making it seem less severe, I would say.”

Nevertheless, the sheer scale of infection is putting a strain on systems, he says.

Sickness among NHS staff has caused havoc, he says.

“We know that 9 percent of the NHS staff, and it's a massive number, because there's nearly a million people in the NHS, they're were off last week, they were off for sickness or isolating.

“So, it's a big hit, there's nearly 100,000 people not going to work.”

Covid caught the world unprepared, Mclean says.

“We've heard a lot talked about pandemic preparedness. And it's really become quite obvious that we just weren't prepared. To put it pretty bluntly, I think Europe and the USA, Brazil and maybe India as well just managed this very badly.”

Plans, such as they were, centred on an influenza pandemic, he says,  

“It was always thought that there’d be a new pandemic … but we were expecting influenza.

“And so the systems were in place but they were not quite right for Coronavirus, because we hadn't really experienced one, and it's a little different to influenza.”

 Western countries can learn a lot from how China and Asian countries dealt with Covid, he says.

“We need a lot more cooperation between nations. And an overall improvement in global public health is probably something that's needed.”

It is hoped Covid is attenuating, he says

“I think everyone's looking and hoping for this to be the beginning of the end, and that the virus will attenuate itself, often new viruses in humans that come from another animal, quite often at the start they're quite deadly. And then slowly over time, they weaken.

“In terms of disease it looks like Omicron is doing that.

“But again humans like picking up little patterns and believing that this is going to be less severe. Of course, this is an unpredictable virus as well it could turn around and mutate and change in the opposite direction.”

It’s too early to celebrate yet, he says.

“We're gonna hope that that the virus does slowly weaken and ultimately the virus is in a struggle against us and it wants to coexist. So, let's hope doesn't take too long.”