Can Omicron catch up with the Delta variant of the coronavirus?

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With a handful of cases now confirmed across the country, it’s clear that the worrying, mutated Omicron variant has gained a foothold in the United States.

But whether these initial infections eventually go away or prove to be the beachhead for another viral attack depends largely on how the tribe fare against a now-familiar foe: the Delta variant.

Since it officially came on the scene last week, much of the discussion about the Omicron strain of the coronavirus has revolved around what scientists admit they don’t know: whether it can spread more easily than other strains, the severity of the disease. change or can more easily escape vaccine protection.

But an equally important question, suggests John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, is this: What if it’s no match for the devil we know?

“Can Delta surpass Omicron, or will Omicron thrive in the face of Delta?” Moore said Thursday on a forum sponsored by UC San Francisco. “That’s just a complete unknown at the moment.”

It is not certain that Omicron will be the top variant in the US

The Delta variant has long been the dominant species are circulating in the US — and it was the culprit behind a renewed wave of cases, hospitalizations and deaths that swept across the country over the summer.

But even the term “dominant” underlines how widespread Delta is. In the United States, it is almost ubiquitous.

“I know the news is focused on Omicron, but we must remember that 99.9% of cases in the country are currently of the Delta variant,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Delta continues to send cases across the country, especially among those who have not been vaccinated.”

The reason for the supremacy of the species is simple. It is the most transmissible variant of the coronavirus to date.

And because of its contagiousness, Delta has been able to eliminate all other variants that would otherwise have spread more widely.

Look no further than the beta variant, which scientists also viewed as a potential threat because it exhibited characteristics that some feared could compromise the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. Scientists feared it could become a new dominant variant.

“Never happened,” Moore said. “Beta was suppressed by Delta. Well, that could happen to Omicron.”

Uncertainty swirls around new species

It remains unknown whether Omicron can spread as easily as Delta.

However, it is clear that Omicron dwarfs its coronavirus compatriot in the number of mutations it possesses. Scientists are still trying to wrap their heads around the full consequences from that.

Omicron has not really been tested against Delta. The rise in South Africa, for example, came at a time when there was a relatively low number of cases in the region and Delta was not being transmitted as frequently as it is now in the United States.

“Omicron originated in South Africa in an environment where there wasn’t much Delta to compete with,” Moore said. “We still have a lot of Delta infections and we’re going to get more in the coming weeks.”

Still cause for concern

That’s not exactly good news. While the magnitude of Omicron’s potential danger is still under assessment, Delta has proved more than powerful enough to carve a devastating orbit across the US

Even disregarding Omicron, “we are already facing a Delta-driven winter golf that will kill another 100,000 to 150,000 Americans,” Moore said.

“Most of us think that’s a pretty bad winter. So how much worse can it get? Well, it could get a lot worse, but I think my money goes to Delta which is dominating the winter pandemic.”

About 6,000 Americans die each week from COVID-19, a trend the CDC predicts will continue or even deteriorate through Christmas Day. California averages more than 500 COVID-19 deaths per week, and there are some scenarios that predict an increase in weekly deaths later this winter, especially if under-vaccinated adults receive booster injections as their immunity weakens.

Nationwide, 70.6% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, and nearly 60% are considered fully vaccinated, CDC numbers show:. In California, those shares are 79.1% and 63.4%, respectively.

“We already have a highly transmissible and dangerous variant in circulation in Delta,” Moore said. “So, we as a nation will definitely have a very bad winter wave – in January, February – just like we saw with Alpha last year. But it will be concentrated in the one-third of the country that refuses to protect itself.”

All available data shows that those who have not been vaccinated are at particular risk for COVID-19.

state health officials estimate that unvaccinated Californians are seven times more likely to get COVID-19, more than 12 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 15 times more likely to die from the disease.

“Given the evidence to date that these vaccines have been very effective against all the variants we’ve seen, the only step I would urge anyone to take is, get vaccinated if you are not vaccinated and go ahead and get that booster shot ASAP,” said Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County director of public health.

Best and worst scenarios

If Omicron is highly transmissible but causes less severe diseases than Delta, this development would be a good thing, Moore said.

But it’s not clear whether Omicron can outperform Delta in such a situation.

“That is, again, the unknown,” he said.

According to Moore, a worst-case scenario would be “if Omicron spreads rapidly and causes serious diseases and breaks vaccine protection. That’s really bad.”

“But if Delta just shuts down Omicron the way it took out Alpha, then we should be backing for Delta: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t — because we know the vaccines can handle Delta. Very few people who are vaccinated die from Delta,” he said.

He continued: “If Omicron is deadly, it would be better for Delta to eradicate it. It’s a perverse way of looking at things…but when you play out possibilities…what are you? not Carrots for is the highly transmissible, deadly strain that blows through vaccines, because that’s what we’ve been afraid of all along.”

While anecdotal reports have trickled in since the variant emerged, officials say it’s too early to know how an Omicron infection will affect disease levels.

“It usually takes a while for a serious illness to really require hospitalization,” says Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, an Orange County deputy health officer. “So we’ll find out, probably in another two weeks, how serious Omicron can be on the system. But it will take time.”

South African doctors don’t seem to panic

Of course things could change, but Moore said it is remarkable that the chairman of the South African Medical Assn. said in a newspaper op-ed published earlier this week that “no one here in South Africa is known to have been hospitalized with the Omicron variant.”

“That’s an interesting perspective. It may or may not turn out to be true. But it’s the position of someone in authority in South Africa who is in contact with the datasets,” Moore said.

“So there’s a possibility that all that is Omicron is a highly modified variant that will spread but not cause serious disease. It could be a move this virus is making toward a non-pathogenic variant related to the common cold viruses – coronaviruses. I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

It is also very likely that Omicron could cause more vulnerable people to become seriously ill and hospitalized. Many of those recently infected are younger, otherwise healthier people, who are not particularly likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19.

Moore said he has read news reports that South Africa’s Omicron peaks are linked to students meeting at parties to commemorate the end of their academic year.

“Maybe in South Africa, Omicron hasn’t invaded a nursing home full of elderly and frail patients,” Moore said.

Could the reinfection rates be worse with Omicron?

There is some initial suggestion that Omicron may be better able to reinfect people who have recovered from previous coronavirus infections, Moore said.

“Not a huge effect. But it’s statistically significant,” he said, based on preliminary analyzes he reviewed. “And that would be consistent with the highly mutated nature of Omicron.”

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