The fast-spreading Omicron variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States, as it now accounts for 73.2 percent of new cases in the US over the past week, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said. As the Omicron variant continues to spread at a fast high pace across the globe, questions about its severity and transmissibility as compared to the Delta variant are at the forefront of discussions. WHO’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Head, Outbreak Investigation Task Force of the World Health Organization (WHO) explains how one can stay safe against the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.
While Dr Maria says that public health experts and scientists are still learning a lot about the Omicron variant every day, when it comes to transmissibility, they have clear evidence to prove how fast it can spread. She said,
We are seeing a really increased growth rate of Omicron over other variants of concern. These are some of the sharpest increases that we’ve seen to date. We do know that it has, what we call, a growth advantage over Delta. And what this means is that we’re seeing a large increase in cases where Omicron is detected. While Omicron has been detected in more than 77 countries, it’s likely that it’s present in other countries as well.
Dr Maria further highlights that the big questions right now are how will Omicron compete with other variants that are circulating in the population? For example, will Omicron outcompete Delta or not?
It’s still a little bit early for us to have a full understanding, but what we can say is that some of the mutations that are identified in Omicron will provide a growth advantage, will allow it to be more transmissible. So, this is a concern that we have and as we know, more cases, if there’s more increased transmissibility, which is what we are seeing, we’ll have more cases. More cases mean more hospitalisations and more hospitalisations can put health care systems, that are already overburdened, into a state where people will not get the appropriate care that they need.
When it comes to the reports about Omicron’s severity and symptoms that may be different from rest of the variants, Dr Maria said that while the symptoms are still being recorded, we do know that people with Omicron can have the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic infection, mild infection, people needing hospitalisation, and people have died from Omicron. She explains,
We do have initial reports that suggest that Omicron is less severe compared to Delta. However, if again, if we have more cases, more cases mean more hospitalisations, and if a health care system is overburdened, people will die because they won’t get the appropriate care that they need. So, it’s early to tell whether or not Omicron is more or less severe, but we do have some initial reports that it is less severe. Now, don’t be fooled. Even if we have a virus that causes less severe disease, this virus can affect vulnerable populations. And we know people with underlying conditions, people of advanced age, if they are infected with any variant of SARS-CoV-2, including Omicron, they are at an increased risk of developing severe disease. So, it is really critical that even if we do see more mild disease, we still do everything that we can to reduce transmission in all populations, people who are vaccinated, as well as people who are not vaccinated.
In terms of disease presentation, Dr Maria says, there are many studies that are underway that are looking at this and people who are infected with Omicron compared to other variants.
We have not seen a change in the disease profile. For example, we haven’t seen a change in the symptoms that people present with Omicron compared to Delta. So you won’t be able to tell the difference. So, the best thing for you to do is to keep yourself safe, get vaccinated when you can and make sure that you take steps to reduce your exposure to this virus.
Dr Maria also advised on what can people do to protect themselves against Omicron. She said,
There’s many things that people can do to keep themselves safe. First of all, is to get vaccinated. Now there are many studies that are underway that are looking at vaccine effectiveness against Omicron. We don’t have that complete picture yet, but what we do know is that it is better to be vaccinated than not. And what is really critical in all countries is that those people who are at risk, those who are over the age of 60, those who have underlying conditions receive their vaccines and making sure they get their first and second doses. It’s really, really critical that everybody get vaccinated when it’s their turn. And at the same time, while we increase vaccination coverage among those who are most at risk in all countries, we also have to take steps to drive transmission down everywhere. And this is using simple measures: physical distancing, wearing of a well-fitted mask with clean hands, avoiding crowds, improving ventilation where we live, where we work, where we study.
Dr Maria asserts that the biggest factor right now is making sure one reduces their exposure to the virus, no matter what variant is circulating.
Delta variant is dominant worldwide, that also needs to be brought under control, and everything that we do right now for Delta will benefit Omicron no matter how it unfolds, no matter what we learn about it. So, do your best to keep yourself safe. Get vaccinated when you can and make sure that you reduce your exposure to this virus where you live, Dr Maria added.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.