Scientists seem to agree that COVID-19 is likely to stay with us this year but the symptoms will be less severe than earlier variants. They say this is because the virus needs to prevent the host from death.
The rapidly increasing number of daily infections caused by the Omicron variant is now being seen in many countries in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. In the United Kingdom alone, it is predicted that at least 1.7 million people are infected with the Omicron strain. But much evidence has shown the new variant appears to trigger less severe illness than its viral predecessors.
In Thailand, the Ministry of Public Health made a study of 100 Omicron-infected patients and found that 48% are asymptomatic, 41% show illness and in 11% of cases they are collecting more information.
Regarding the illness, 34 of 100 infected patients show mild symptoms with no lung infection. Only seven patients show lung infections, but none need a life support machine.
Among the 41 infected patients, the study also found some signs of sickness including coughing (54%), a sore throat (37%), fever (29%), muscle pain (15%), runny nose (12%), headache (10%), difficulty in breathing (5%) and lost sense of smell (2%).
Dr Anan Jongkaewwattana, director of the Veterinary Health Innovation and management Research Group, National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec), said Omicron is unlikely to replace the Delta variant because Omicron is rather different in terms of genetics.
Delta is like a brother to Alpha and Beta, he said. If someone is infected by the Delta variant, he or she can also get ill from the Omicron variant, meaning the host can have both variants at the same time.
“It means the world will have both Delta and Omicron variants, just as we have many variants of avian flu today. So this year, there could be a vaccine against Delta and Omicron strain in one shot, like the flu vaccine,” he said.
He said the virus inevitably will mutate. If the virus only changes its protein spike, the symptoms will no longer be dangerous. Vaccine development could also get faster, he added.
The Ministry of Public Health recently released its worst-case scenario of COVID-19 Omicron infections after New Year, that daily infections could reach 30,000 cases per day, with 170–180 deaths per day, if people do not observe universal prevention practices.
In the best-case scenario, the country would see about 10,000 new infections, with fatalities hovering between 60–70 a day as early as late January while in the second scenario, the authority may register 15,000–16,000 new cases per day.
Dr Chakkarat Pittayawong-anont, director of the epidemiology division at the Department of Disease Control (DDC), is confident that Omicron will not cause a large number of patients to fall critically ill unlike the Delta variant, where at their peak, the number of critical patients with lung infections reached 2,000 cases per day and the death toll was over 200 cases per day.
He said 70% of the population already has been vaccinated and Omicron produces less critical conditions anyway.
However, he said this year would be another challenging year for public health officials because people, as they grow weary of life with the virus, are likely to pay less attention to health prevention from COVID-19.
They are also more likely to hold large gatherings, which are a risk factor for controlling the disease.
“We need good cooperation from the public. People can’t afford to get too relaxed and must realise the disease is still active,” he added.
He also voiced concern about people who have not yet been vaccinated, saying that a number of vaccine recipients seems to be stabilising. The unvaccinated group is at a high risk of getting the disease. However, an outbreak of Omicron might be a good opportunity to convince them to get jabbed.
Meanwhile, the ministry’s permanent secretary Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit said the Omicron-led outbreak should be under control within two months if people provide good cooperation.
The ministry would consider whether the COVID-19 should shift in status from pandemic to endemic if severe cases and the death toll fall dramatically. However, that day seems far away as the death toll from Omicron is still high at 0.7% when compared with avian flu at 0.01%.