Exclusive: The World Health Organization’s technical lead on covid-19 says we will know how effective our vaccines are against omicron by Christmas
8 December 2021
Since it was first detected by scientists in South Africa, the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has spread across the world at an alarming speed, prompting many countries to introduce new restrictions and forcing people to reconsider plans for large gatherings. As it is so new, many details about how it compares to other variants aren’t yet clear. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on covid-19, spoke to New Scientist about what we know so far, how she is approaching the festive season and how 2022 might pan out.
What can you tell us about the transmissibility of omicron?
We’ll have an answer on how transmissible it is in days rather than weeks. We don’t have an answer yet on whether it outcompetes delta [variant]. We are seeing increased growth of the variant in many countries where delta has diminished, but we need to see how it co-circulates with delta in other areas.
What do we know about the severity of disease caused by omicron?
We are getting a clearer picture here. Many patients have presented with mild disease and if you compare it to other waves, omicron seems to be more mild. We will get more data on that soon. But it doesn’t mean it’s only mild – we have seen the full spectrum of severity with the variant, and people will die from it. Saying “it’s only mild” is very dangerous. If it is more transmissible than delta, there will be more cases, more hospitalisations and more deaths.
How effective are our vaccines against omicron?
There are lots of studies on mutations in other variants that are also present in omicron, and some show reduced vaccine efficacy in terms of prevention against severe disease and death, but it doesn’t mean vaccines won’t work. Our current vaccines are incredibly potent against severe disease and death. We will get some answers on the variant’s impact on vaccines before Christmas. One thing we need from South Africa in particular is data on severity by vaccination status, so we can get a better understanding of what happens if you are infected by omicron while vaccinated.
You have the most knowledge of anyone in the world right now about covid-19. What is your prediction for what might happen in 2022, or does omicron show it’s completely unpredictable?
Omicron was entirely predictable. Not the specific mutations, but the idea that we’d have a variant that would emerge that would potentially be more transmissible, a variant that had properties of immune escape [reduced protection from vaccines and prior infection]. In 2022, I expect to see a significant reduction in hospitalisations and deaths in those who are vaccinated. At the same time, the virus will evolve because we’re not doing enough to prevent its transmission. I don’t mean lockdowns, but social distancing, mask wearing, working from home and improving ventilation – all the thing we’ve figured out that help. What countries do in the next week to 10 weeks completely influences what happens with omicron. 2022 will unfold how we allow it to.
If someone is planning to meet up with family over the holidays, what advice would you give? Are you having a holiday party?
We are asking people to be really careful and what they should do depends on where that family is meeting, whether they are vaccinated, if they use testing, if they are minimising contacts, if they are doing things outdoors rather than indoors. You need to make sure there is good ventilation where you are meeting. Personally, I would give anything to spend the holidays with my family. We are having tough discussions right now, just as many families are. People should say: “OK, if we’re going to do this, let’s work out how can we do this as safely as possible.” We have choices and our choices have consequences: don’t give the virus the opportunity to thrive.
Finally, what are you going to do about naming future variants once you run out of Greek letters?
We are considering naming them after star constellations, but we have received some pushback. If we do go ahead with that plan, we’ll choose constellations that are less well known so that there’s no stigma on the beautiful stars we see in the sky.
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