Befriending Omicron

From that day in November 2021, when it was first identified in a South African lab, the SARS-CoV-2 variant named Omicron has cast a frightening shadow on a world already brought down to its knees by the deadly Delta variant.

Featuring about 30 mutations, it showed an amazing capacity to evade the body’s first line of defense even in fully vaccinated individuals. More than that, it appeared to spread superfast, indicating a shorter incubation period that allows it to remain undetected even as it finds new hosts. Omicron’s blend of agility and contagiousness made South Africa, the country that dutifully and promptly reported its presence on its shores, an overnight pariah. All travel to that country instantly ceased.

Yet, by the time it was discovered, Omicron was already halfway around the world. It was seen in Hong Kong, the rest of Asia, the United States, Europe, and pretty much everywhere in which genome sequencing was diligently being done. After just over a month, it is now regarded as the most pervasive strain of the virus and held responsible for the exponential rise in global infections.

A news item from Reuters tells it all: “In its weekly epidemiological report on Thursday, the WHO said cases increased by 71 percent, or 9.5 million, in the week to Jan. 2 from a week earlier, while deaths fell by 10 percent or 41,000.” Infections are rising exponentially, yet deaths are falling.

Here, in a single glance, is a view of the proverbial silver lining from which we might draw some hope. Both in the hard numbers being reported as well as in our own actual experience of this ongoing surge, we find that, along with the steep rise in new cases, less people are getting severely ill. This is different from the surges caused by Delta and the early variants.

The other day, four members of my own household tested positive on the rapid antigen tests administered by a home service provider. Their symptoms (low-grade fever, itchy throat, headache, sneezing, etc.) were mild or had cleared out. They saw the test as an unnecessary expense. They were incredulous when the results showed they were infected. All were fully vaccinated, and it may be assumed that the vaccines had indeed shielded them from severe COVID-19.

The point is: If no one had insisted that they be tested, they would not have known they were carrying the virus, nor would they have felt any need to isolate. They would have gone on with their normal routines, unknowingly infecting others in the process. The same is probably happening in countless other households—in which case the official numbers being reported by the Department of Health would represent a gross underestimate of the real situation we are in.

Having been exposed to our family driver in particular, I have gone on quarantine and scheduled a test for myself. To my dismay, I was told that results for the RT-PCR test would be available only after 3-4 days, instead of the usual 12-24 hours waiting time. I was advised to have the rapid antigen test instead, since I wasn’t having any symptoms.

Clearly, the demand for testing services has risen exponentially in just a few days and is overrunning our limited testing capabilities. The DOH has warned the public about the limitations of self-administered antigen tests when used by people with no experience in securing proper swab samples.

I can see where the DOH is coming from: It wants to be able to record all new cases, and it does not expect every user of an antigen test to report the results. But, in discouraging people from using self-administered tests, it may be shutting the door to one good venue for engaging the public in the collective effort to stop the pandemic. Singapore seeks to tap civic cooperation in the management of public health by distributing antigen tests (with clear instructions on their proper use) to every household.

The good news is that experts like the Filipino-American molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco see in the rapid spread and phenomenal rise to dominance of Omicron the possible way out of this pandemic. If this variant of the coronavirus, despite its contagiousness, tends to cause less severe disease compared to earlier strains, he said in a TV interview, we may be witnessing the end of the acute phase of the pandemic and its downgrading into an endemic health problem akin to the common cold.

Writing for the magazine The Atlantic, Johns Hopkins University professor Yascha Mounk explains this hopeful scenario thus: “Viruses are most dangerous when they are introduced into a population that has never had contact with them before… Once a large portion of the population is exposed to Omicron, humanity will be a lot less immunologically naive, which might help us better handle future strains of the coronavirus without a significant increase in mortality.”

There is, of course, nothing absolutely certain about this. Omicron may not offer a strong enough protection against future variants. As Prof. Mounk says, “If we’re unlucky, some future strain could turn out to be (at least) as infectious as Omicron and (at least) as deadly as Delta.”

What seems certain is this, as trends in other countries are showing: At the rate it is spreading, Omicron will soon completely edge out Delta. Still, despite being less deadly, Omicron may cause a considerable number of hospitalizations and deaths, especially among those with comorbidities and the elderly. But it will fade out almost as fast as it made its appearance.

At both the societal and personal level, we are learning to adapt to the virus in a way that no longer requires us to put our lives on hold while waiting for its total extinction.