By Dr. Gyan Pathak
Omicron spread across the world has made the world understand: that vaccines alone do not prevent the spread of COVID-19; that people need to follow the five major recommendations – wearing well-fitted masks, safe distancing, avoiding crowds, cleaning hands, and opening windows; that the currently available vaccines need to be updated; and that only the government is capable of protecting the people and the private sector and therefore doing away with the public sector in favour of private sector is wrong.
The latest COVID-19 wave led by the new variant Omicron is considered as milder than the other variants. It escapes the immunity created by the present vaccines and therefore it has been threatening to overwhelm the health facilities and workers available for the patients. Omicron variant represents a “new west to east tidal wave”. Situation has become alarming, for example, in Europe, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts, over 50 per cent of the population will be infected with Omicron within six to eight weeks. In this case both the health workers and the health facilities will be overwhelmed.
In its situation update, experts from WHO has said that the data collected in recent weeks confirmed that Omicron is highly transmissible: “Because the mutations it has, enable it to adhere to human cells more easily, and it can infect even those who have been previously infected or vaccinated.”
However, it does not mean that vaccines are totally ineffective. WHO experts have said that the “currently approved vaccines do continue to provide good protection against severe disease and death, including for Omicron. That is why the WHO mantra remains intact, that is – Vaccination, third doses or boosters, increased mask use, ventilation of crowded or closed spaces, and the application of new clinical protocol.
“Because of the unprecedent scale of transmission, we are now seeing rising COVID-19 hospitalisations. It is challenging health systems and service delivery in many countries where Omicron has spread at speed,” threatening to overwhelm many more, WHO has warned.
The interim statement of the WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition, which was established in September 2021 has said that current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated to ensure their continued effectiveness against Omicron and future variants. Even though, amid increased Omicron circulation, it has called for “urgent and broad access” to current vaccines globally, both for protection and to mitigate the emergence of new variants of concerns (VoCs).
Presently 18 member experts of this group are developing a framework to analyze the evidence on emerging VoCs “in the context of criteria that would trigger a recommendation to change COVID-19 vaccine strain composition and will advise WHO on updated vaccine compositions, as required.” They have said that vaccines that have a high impact on prevention of infection and transmission, in addition to prevention of severe disease and death, are needed and should be developed.
“Until such vaccines are available, and as the SARS-CoV-2 virus evolves, the composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated, to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide WHO-recommended levels of protection against infection and disease by VOCs, including Omicron and future variants,” they statement read.
The WHO Technical Advisory Group will consider a change in vaccine composition to ensure doses continue to meet WHO criteria, including protection against severe disease, and to improve vaccine-induced protection.
It is here, the vaccine manufacturers have a great role to play, because the vaccines they produce need to be “based on strains that are genetically and antigenically close” to circulating variants. Additionally, the WHO Technical Group has said, they must protect against severe disease and death, and be more effective against infection, thus lowering virus transmission and the need for stringent public health and social measures. They have also encouraged the manufactures of vaccines to generate and share data on the performance of current and Omicron-specific vaccines so that informed decision can be taken as to when changes to vaccine composition may be required.
In the meantime the people need to wear masks, avoid crowds, maintain safe distance, get vaccines as recommended, and do everything to lower the risk of infection, since we have limited number of health workers and medical facilities. Moreover, health professionals are also getting infected with speed, and we should keep in mind that lesser number of them will be available for medical care of too large number of patients to be attended to.
Governments need to be extravigilant to prevent such situation, and they must be ready with contingency plans, and containment measures, apart from catering to the people’s non-medical needs such as availability of food and other emergency items, especially for women, children, the old, and the poor.
Since, the private sector themselves needed help from the government during the crisis, it is clear that they are not capable of protecting the people. In this scenario, governments must not weaken the public sector in favour of private sector, because it was the public sector that helped the private sector to survive during the COVID-19 crisis not the other way round. Public expenditure must therefore be enhanced, and large scale privatisation must stop forthwith.
WHO has so far designated five variants of concern – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron – since the virus first emerged in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Some experts see silver lining in the spread of Omicron signaling the end of virulent COVID-19. However, one cannot put ones guard off on such hopes. The WHO expert group has warned, “While the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly across the world, the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 is expected to continue and Omicron is unlikely to be the last VoC.” (IPA Service)