A rapidly spreading Omicron variant that causes milder illness than previous versions of the coronavirus has fueled the belief that COVID-19 poses less of a threat than in the past.
In that case, some may want to know, why go to such lengths to avoid infection now, when everyone will be exposed to the virus sooner or later?
Here are some of the reasons why experts believe it is not time to relax when it comes to Omicron:
YOU MAY STILL BECOME VERY ILL
According to research, Omicron may be more likely to cause an asymptomatic case of COVID-19 than prior variants. Among those who do have symptoms, a higher proportion has a very mild illness, such as a sore throat or a runny nose, without the breathing difficulties associated with earlier infections.
However, due to the extraordinary spread of Omicron in many countries, more people will suffer from the severe disease in absolute numbers. Recent data from Italy and Germany, in particular, show that unvaccinated people are far more vulnerable to hospitalization, intensive care, and death.
“I agree that sooner or later everyone will be exposed, but later is better,” said virus expert Michel Nussenzweig of Rockefeller University. “Why? Because later we will have better and more available medicines and better vaccines.”
YOU COULD INFECT OTHERS
Even if you have antibodies from a previous infection or vaccination, you could pass the virus to someone else who is at risk for critical illness, according to Yale University’s Akiko Iwasaki, who studies viral immunology.
OMICRON’S LONG-TERM EFFECTS ARE UNKNOWN
Infections with earlier variants of the coronavirus, including mild infections and “breakthrough” cases after vaccination, sometimes caused the lingering, debilitating long-haul COVID syndrome. “We have no data yet on what proportion of infections with Omicron… end up with Long COVID,” Iwasaki said. “People who underestimate Omicron as ‘mild’ are putting themselves at risk of a debilitating disease that can linger for months or years.”
It is also unknown whether Omicron will have any of the “silent” effects seen with previous variants, such as self-attacking antibodies, sperm impairments, and changes in insulin-producing cells.
MEDICATIONS ARE IN SHORT SUPPLY
Omicron treatments are so limited that doctors are forced to ration them. Two of the three antibody drugs that have been used in previous COVID-19 waves are ineffective against this variant. The third, sotrovimab from GlaxoSmithKline, is in short supply, as is Paxlovid, a new oral antiviral treatment from Pfizer Inc. that appears to be effective against Omicron. If you become sick, you may not be able to receive treatment.
HOSPITALS ARE FILLING UP
In fully vaccinated and boosted individuals without underlying medical conditions, Omicron “will not do too much damage,” said David Ho, professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University. Still, the fewer infections, the better, especially now, “when the hospitals are already overwhelmed, and the peak of Omicron wave is yet to come” for most of the United States, Ho said.
Hospitals have had to postpone elective surgeries and cancer treatments due to a record number of infected patients. Moreover, during past surges, overwhelmed hospitals were unable to properly treat other emergencies, such as heart attacks.
MORE INFECTION RESULTS IN MORE NEW VARIANTS
Omicron is the fifth highly significant variant of the original SARS-COV-2 virus, and it remains to be seen whether the virus’s ability to mutate further will be slowed.
High infection rates also provide the virus with more opportunities to mutate, and there’s no guarantee that a new coronavirus will be more benign than its predecessors. “SARS-CoV-2 has surprised us in many different ways over the past two years, and we have no way of predicting the evolutionary trajectory of this virus,” Ho said.