Omicron: Australian experts say panic won’t help solve the problems

As virologists and epidemiologists around the world are grappling to understand the Omicron variant of the COVID-19, some Australian experts say panic won’t help solve the problems and stronger international health cooperation would be the right way to cope with new challenges in the future.

Professor Anthony Zwi of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) told Xinhua there are a number of different factors experts routinely consider while assessing the severity of a new variant: how it behaves, how transmissible it is, and whether current diagnostic tests are able to detect it.

“Experts will want to know whether the treatments that have already been developed to deal with COVID-19 still work, and whether the current vaccines are still reliable,” he said.

“Panic does not help! We need to be concerned. We need to understand the risks. We need to gather the data and act on evidence. But panic measures won’t help,” Zwi said.

As it has been just weeks since the global community became aware of Omicron, experts are still collecting and analyzing related information.

Zwi said in the next few weeks, experts have suggested it should be possible to learn quickly, especially from places with larger numbers of Omicron variant infections, while stressing that in Europe the Delta variant currently poses a much greater immediate risk to health.

“You have to have a larger number of cases to understand what the clinical patterns are,” he said, adding that it was “very good news” that scientists and the World Health Organization (WHO) have indicated that the current diagnostic tests continue to work for Omicron.

“In terms of vaccines, that remains an open question. Both vaccine manufacturers and the immunologist are doing what they can in the laboratory to see whether this variant, once they can grow it, is responsive to existing vaccines,” Zwi added.

According to him, in many cases such as in relation to the Delta variant, vaccines have continued to be highly effective, especially in suppressing serious morbidity and mortality.

“We’re already going into the third year of COVID-19. We are likely to see other strains occurring. We should apply what are known public health control measures, and we should be vaccinating people. That remains an absolutely essential part of responding to Omicron or other variants that might emerge,” Zwi said.

Dr. Paul Griffin, Infectious Diseases Physician and Microbiologist from the University of Queensland, said there remain many unknowns about Omicron and the case numbers that are driving early reports are still very small, but we are in a really “fortunate position” as there’s so much cooperation in terms of reporting the cases, sequencing to find them early.

“So we’re in a really strong position in terms of our capability, it really does depend on numbers,” Griffin said.

Both experts believe the border restrictions implemented by several countries would help buy time to get more information about the new variant, but closing borders would not be the most important solution.

“The benefits from closing the international borders are diminishing as we see more and more countries reporting cases. So I think it’s going to be something we always need to be prepared to do, but like all of these restrictions, we need to do it for the shortest amount of time required,” Griffin said.

As an expert focusing on global health and development policy and practice for years, Zwi thought the new variant also highlighted the importance of addressing health resource shortages and vaccine inequity in low and middle-income countries.

“There are large concentrations of people with poor access to health services and low levels of vaccination, but they’re still exposed to the virus. So the virus then has an opportunity to spread rapidly in highly concentrated populations. When it’s spreading rapidly in large numbers within communities, more mutations are likely to occur.”

Equitable distribution of vaccines should be needed in every country to cope with the coronavirus, Zwi said, pointing to draw attention to WHO’s recommendation that 40 percent of eligible populations in every country should be vaccinated by the end of 2021 and 70 percent by mid-2022.

“This is far from being on track at the present time,” Zwi said, adding that in the longer term, countries need to allocate more resources to health and education, promote sustainable development, work together to reduce inequalities within and between countries, get more people out of poverty and educated.

“We should leave no one behind. That no one is safe until everyone is safe remains very true. And that’s where we should be concentrating our efforts,” Zwi added.