After Omicron, can we learn to live with the coronavirus? – POLITICS


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The Omicron variant is behind an unprecedented wave of coronavirus infection in Europe which, because it is so contagious, means that it will be difficult for most people to avoid exposure to the sickness.

Even though Omicron is less deadly than previous versions of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, hospitals and other critical services still face enormous tensions in the coming weeks as staff become infected or must self-isolate.

But what happens then? Some scientists say the current wave heralds a two-year “exit wave” from the pandemic and a transition to a new, endemic, less dangerous phase where societies will have to learn to live with the virus. Others call it wishful thinking and warn that with more people infected than ever before, the chances of a new, more dangerous strain emerging will only increase:

How big will the Omicron wave be?

Omicron wave has been compared by politicians to a tidal wave: France is dizzy 270,000 new cases Tuesday, while countries, including Greece, Italy, and Spain also set infection records. Eastern European countries are now detecting their first Omicron case.

But health experts agree that unlike the same time last year, intensive care units are not at risk of being overrun. While Omicron can bypass prior immunity, studies indicate that vaccines and previous infections still protect against the worst outcomes.

In the UK – the first country in Europe to encounter Omicron – new infections have crossed the threshold of 200,000 Tuesday and hospitalizations multiply. But the number of patients on mechanical ventilation remains apartment despite the upsurge in infections. This is a positive signal for the rest of Europe.

How bad will it be?

Omicron is able to bypass immunity from a standard course of vaccination or previous infection with COVID-19. Most importantly, the booster shots seem to be effective, and Omicron itself is less dangerous than the previous variants. Research points to the variant focusing on the upper respiratory tract, avoiding more sensitive lungs previously linked to fatal complications from COVID-19.

Despite the reduced virulence of the variant and widespread immunity to vaccines, health systems are still under pressure. In Italy, patients fill regular hospital beds even if they don’t end up in intensive care, said Fidelia Cascini, assistant professor of public health at the Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore in Rome. This means leveraging resources that could be used for other patients in health systems already struggling with backlogs and staff shortages.

More generally, massive absences when staff have to self-isolate after a positive test could threaten essential services and critical infrastructure, and undermine the continent’s fragile economic recovery after recent closures.

Sarah Scobie, deputy director of research at the health-focused think tank Nuffield Trust, said 25,000 UK health workers were on sick leave in the most recent week for which data is available. In England, several hospital trusts have declared “critical incidents“due to staff shortages. Omicron’s full impact remains to be seen, Scobie warned, as it is only now starting to spread among the elderly, who are more likely to fall seriously ill from the coronavirus.

When will this end?

Flemming Konradsen, professor of global environmental health at the University of Copenhagen, expects Europe to be in a very different situation by the end of February. In Denmark, the first country on the continent to record a major Omicron wave, the variant’s rapid spread means it will pass through population quickly.

“After burnout, we’ll have a population in Denmark that’s almost 90 percent infected or immune. And that, of course, will make the disease very different,” Konradsen said. People will still get sick, but the risk of serious illness will be concentrated in environments such as nursing homes and hospitals.

This scenario is likely to unfold across Europe, as the rollout of booster injections and the immunity gained from infection with Omicron improves the population’s defenses. Eastern Europe, where immunization levels are lagging behind, could be vulnerable: “I would expect many health systems across Europe from January to mid-February to be under significant pressure, “Konradsen said.

Is South Africa the future?

South Africa was one of the first countries to detect the Omicron variant in late November. Public health experts have since analyzed the Omicron wave to understand how the variant could spread around the world.

With its young demographic profile, the African nation does not have a perfect parallel with anywhere in Europe. However, cases have already sharp without a significant increase in deaths. And, unlike previous waves, South Africa refrained from imposing further restrictions even as Omicron increased. So far, this approach has paid off.

“We basically argued that the move to higher levels of restrictions should only be informed if health facilities are under imminent threat and not on the basis of the growing number of cases,” said Shabir Madhi, professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand and Chairman of the National Advisory Group on Immunization in South Africa. “It has worked extremely well, with minimal damage in South Africa compared to what has happened in the past.”

In the future, the focus should be on preventing serious illness and death, Madhi said. “By constantly insisting on the number of infected people, you are really missing out on the fact that the virus is not going to go away,” he said.

Can we learn to live with the virus?

Scientists are starting to talk about a possible end of the pandemic, with the virus becoming “endemic”, circulating freely but posing less of a threat to societies.

This is the point of view of epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, technical officer of the World Health Organization on COVID-19. Speaking in December, she predicted a long transition before the pandemic was over. “Endemic doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous,” Van Kerkhove added.

But there is no consensus on how the pandemic will unfold, or even what life will be like with an endemic virus.

Masks, for example, are likely to remain a common feature in Europe, as they already were in Asia throughout the flu season, said Martin McKee, professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. .

He is a signatory to a letter co-authored by a number of public health experts advocating for a ‘vaccine plus’ strategy that focuses on both jabs and public health measures, including more restrictions. strict if necessary. McKee said the focus should continue to be on removing the virus, which can still pose a risk to the most vulnerable.

Could a more deadly variant emerge?

McKee warned, however, that there was no scientific consensus on whether the coronavirus would remain less deadly: it could continue to evolve and become more dangerous again. A group of Swedish scientists share this fear: “Letting large amounts of infections circulate is like opening Pandora’s box. We should expect more unpleasant surprises. We have barely seen the latest variant,” they said. do they write in a opinion piece for POLITICO.

David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, agreed there was always the possibility of a dangerous mutation. But, he added, the high level of population immunity achieved in the UK should guide a different approach. Rather than making top-down decisions like deadlocks, people should do their own risk assessments. For example, testing yourself before going out to dinner or avoiding vulnerable people if there is a risk of infection.

“It’s just about letting this disease become like other diseases, a disease that we do our own assessment on,” he said. “Let’s start doing what we need to do to prevent this from spreading quickly and to protect others.”

This article is part of POLITICSThe premium policing service of: Pro Health Care. Prices for medicines, EMAs, vaccines, pharmaceuticals and more, our expert journalists keep you up to date on the topics that drive the political agenda in healthcare. E-mail [email protected] for a free trial.

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