Saturday, July 2News That Matters

Omicron: A Variant of Concern or A Natural Vaccine or A Big Unknown?

One of the lessons to be learned from climate change, biodiversity loss, urban sprawl, ethnic conflicts, and economic down-turns is that when we abuse or neglect fauna and flora, we also harm ourselves in the process. Virtually, everyone knows the phrase, “Nature red in tooth and claw”. As Lord Tennyson said, nature is blind to our personal hopes and feelings. She doesn’t play favourites. Similarly, George Williams explains in an essay titled “Mother Nature is a Wicked Old Witch” that planet earth wasn’t formed to be an agreeable place for humankind (or any other creature) to live in. We and all other organisms have had to work hard to adapt to the Earth’s geological belchings and thrustings, harsh temperatures and climate regimes. In Williams’ words, organisms adapt to their environment, never vice-versa.
According to the WHO, Omicron is the fastest spreading Covid-19 variant yet, and has been declared as the fastest spreading virus known to humankind. This new variant was first detected in specimens collected on November 11, 2021 in Botswana and on November 14, 2021 in South Africa. On November 26, 2021, WHO named the B.1.1.529 as Omicron and classified it as a Variant of Concern (VOC). The United States designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern on November 30, 2021. This highly mutated variant has caused alarm among scientists and is widely expected to become dominant because of its high transmissibility.
Some virologists claim that the Omicron variant could act as a natural vaccine. Many scientists have backed this idea that Omicron will act as a natural vaccination and may help in taking Covid-19 progression towards an endemic stage.
Some virologists have depicted in their preprints that Omicron is less pathogenic, showing less severe clinical signs (weight loss), less viral load in both upper and lower respiratory tracts than prior Covid variants in Syrian golden hamsters. Alex Sigal, a South Africa-based virologist, has clearly mentioned in Nature Reviews Immunology in accordance with Bentley et al, 2021 and McMahanet et al, 2022 that Omicron infection causes milder lung pathology. Lower viral pathogenicity and higher population immunity do not have to exclude one another, however. Omicron leads to less severe disease due to preexisting immunity and if the viral component is as important as it seems, then the question is, what kind of Covid variant will we get next? The emergence of another major variant of concern is highly probable as the virus has proven it can evolve to escape immunity.
However, many other scientists have dismissed the claims of Omicron becoming a natural vaccine and it is too early to assume anything; rather, one must stay on guard and take all necessary measures. Letting the guard down in the face of a variant that appears to be infecting everyone is very dangerous to the more vulnerable lot of people, including the elderly and the immunocompromised. Karen Edwards, an epidemiologist at the University of California, says that more interactions between potentially infected people will give the virus more pathways to spread and if we had a variant that caused severe disease like Delta variant and was as transmissible as Omicron, we wouldn’t want to see that.
On the other side of this long-term containment, lockdowns and resultant economic collapse, millions of workers in India are not covered by contracts and protections. Stunted growth of children, malnutrition, malediction, a small health sector already packed with Covid patients, and above all, the half-cocked leadership are the factors pregnant with catastrophe and will definitely intensify the Covid-19 storm. This worrying dreadful situation will become even graver if diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening conditions is interrupted. How long physical distancing, lockdowns will have to stay in place is a big question for countries riddled with socio-economic and developmental challenges.
Last, but not the least, we need globally connected medical research, legitimate dissemination of knowledge at the right time, cooperative society and synergic leadership to combat against factors which are pregnant with catastrophe.

—The writer is Assistant Professor of Zoology at Islamia College of Science & Commerce, Srinagar.

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