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EXCLUSIVE – With Omicron variant, COVID-19 pandemic may become endemic: Virologist

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New Delhi: As India is in the midst of a third COVID-19 wave fuelled by the new Omicron variant, it has been observed that while the novel coronavirus cases are soaring, individuals are mostly experiencing mild symptoms with faster recovery. Omicron is termed by experts as more transmissible than the Delta variant but also less virulent. Experts are also suggesting that Omicron can also lead to COVID-19 becoming endemic.

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“In the case of any living organism, the ultimate idea is survival, propagation, and perpetuation of the species,” said Dr Niranjan Patil – Scientific business and Head of Department for Clinical Microbiology, Infectious Molecular Biology and Virology at Metropolis Healthcare Limited, Mumbai.

Elaborating why COVID-19 can become endemic, he explained, “The SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus and like other RNA viruses it replicates as well as mutates at a very high rate. But if the virus infection in its hosts is likely to be so lethal that it kills the host eventually the transmission may stop as there will be no susceptible/ vulnerable host that will continue to exist for such a virulent pathogenic microorganism. It may mean dead-end for such highly virulent pathogenic microorganism’s transmission as well as propagation of that species. This is something which no living pathogenic microorganism including SARS CoV 2 can afford in the long run.”

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OMICRON LESS SEVERE THAN PREVIOUS VARIANTS
 

Dr Patil also shared that Omicron is less dangerous than previous SARS-Cov-2 variants. “Omicron is more likely to affect the nose and throat (which constitutes the upper airways) rather than the lungs and thus there is less likelihood of it progressing into COVID pneumonia or arising need of oxygen and ICU admission”.

He further told that the duration of the disease is shorter, lasting on average of  3 to 7 days maximum in the vast majority of cases. In fact, in most cases up to 85 to 90 percent are without any symptoms especially in people who are even partially vaccinated.

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SHOULD WE NOT WORRY ABOUT OMICRON?

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We have to remember that the severity of the symptoms is less as compared to Delta variant or Delta plus variant but in those people who have hybrid immunity.

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Hybrid immunity refers to a combination of immunity that an individual gains from a natural infection against the virus as well as from vaccines. People who have recovered from COVID-19 develop hybrid immunity when they get vaccinated, given that they now have both natural and vaccine-induced immunity.

However, Dr Patil warns against getting lax in taking precautions against Omicron and shared, “We need to remind ourselves that the Omicron is equally severe in unvaccinated individuals or those with comorbidities whether single or multiple e.g. those with pre-existing Diabetes mellitus, heart disease, dialysis, chronic kidney diseases, those on steroids or immunosuppressants, transplant recipients, cancer patients, etc”.

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FOCUS ON EQUITABLE VACCINE DISTRIBUTION TO FIGHT PANDEMIC

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Even with fewer chances of a lethal COVID wave in near future, it is still a possibility. The best way to minimize its chances is by ensuring that COVID vaccines are available to people across countries and social classes. Dr Patil says that the severe forms of illness have been seen predominantly in unvaccinated individuals with comorbidity which weakens the host defense immune responses.

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“If entire humanity has to get rid of the pandemic, vaccine inequality among nations of the world has to go away. Otherwise, we will end up in an unending cycle of new variants arising in chronically immunocompromised individuals infected with SARS CoV2 from poor or developing nations with vaccine inequality,” warned Dr Patil.

He further elaborated that immunocompromised individuals “take a long time to clear the virus from their bodies and continue shedding and exposing others who come in contact with such individuals”.

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