Of course, that hasn't stopped a lot of people from making definitive statements. Even before the data has come in, many are either hyping the Omicron threat or down-playing it. I wish I had that much confidence in my own ability to see the future.
The news over the past 48 hours that Omicron has at least one significant sibling lineage (see Proposal to split B.1.1.529 to incorporate a newly characterised sibling lineage on CoV-Lineages) - one without the signature SGTF (S-gene target failure) of the first Omicron variant - adds yet another level of uncertainty.
This (proposed) BA.2 sub-lineage has already been detected in multiple countries (Canada, Australia, South Africa, etc.) - but we don't yet have a very good handle on its spread - or how it compares with the original Omicron (BA.1) or Delta variant.
A lot of hope is pinned on early reports from South Africa that Omicron appears to produce milder illness than Delta. And I hope that is true. But we need to see a lot more data, from more places than just South Africa, before we can comfortably assume such.
And even then, viruses evolve, and what is milder today could pick up new virulence inducing mutations down the road.
What does seem apparent, at least of the first Omicron variant, is that it is outperforming Delta in places like the UK, South Africa, and Denmark. Yesterday the UK warned it could become the dominant strain in that country within a month.
Yesterday, Pfizer-Biontech released preliminary data indicating that two shots of their mRNA vaccine isn't very protective against Omicron, but that a 3rd - booster - shot increases its effectiveness 25-fold. How long that enhanced protection lasts remains under investigation.
PFIZER AND BIONTECH PROVIDE UPDATE ON OMICRON VARIANT
Wednesday, December 08, 2021 - 06:54 am
- Preliminary laboratory studies demonstrate that three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine neutralize the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529 lineage) while two doses show significantly reduced neutralization titers
- Data indicate that a third dose of BNT162b2 increases the neutralizing antibody titers by 25-fold compared to two doses against the Omicron variant; titers after the booster dose are comparable to titers observed after two doses against the wild-type virus which are associated with high levels of protection
- As 80% of epitopes in the spike protein recognized by CD8+ T cells are not affected by the mutations in the Omicron variant, two doses may still induce protection against severe disease
- The companies continue to advance the development of a variant-specific vaccine for Omicron and expect to have it available by March in the event that an adaption is needed to further increase the level and duration of protection – with no change expected to the companies’ four billion dose capacity for 2022
There are a lot of moving parts to our coronavirus pandemic, with new factors being introduced into the mix all the time. What we do know about Omicron (BA.1 or BA.2) is based on surveillance data that - by definition - is already outdated by the time it is collected and collated.
I know people want answers. But good science takes time.
The threat (or lack, thereof) posed by Omicron will become clearer in the months ahead. While some early reports on Omicron have been reassuring, we still have a lot of Delta to deal with, and the potential return of seasonal influenza as well.
Which means, for now at least, we still have to deal with our COVID pandemic one wave at a time.