Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, explains how travel bans won’t work and why Omicron makes a case for boosters.
India reported two cases of Omicron variant on Thursday.
As India reports its first two Omicron cases, India Today TV Consulting Editor Rajdeep Sardesai spoke to Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, to know what it means and how the challenge should be met. Excerpts:
Q: Can Omicron outstrip Delta, or is it too early to say?
Unfortunately, it’s a little too early to say—lots of reasons to consider. We see variants all the time. Most of them aren’t a problem. This one has many concerning features that means we have to take Omicron very seriously. I don’t think there’s any reason to panic; I think we’re going to manage our way through it, but it could end up being quite a serious variant.
Q: Why should Omicron worry us?
There are three questions: Does it spread more easily? Does it cause a mild disease or a more severe disease? Will our vaccines continue to be effective? It looks very transmissible; at least in South Africa, it may be more transmissible than Delta. I have seen lots of stories of mild cases; I hope it turns out to be mild. We will know soon. On the vaccine question, we don’t have data yet, but we have lots of reasons to be concerned. Vaccines will not stop working completely, but they may not work as well. In a week or 10 days, we will get more data. We don’t need to make any presumptions right now.
Q: Dr Angelique Coetzee, Chair, South African Medical Association, told me many of the cases she saw were of young people having mild symptoms. Reason for hope?
I hope she is right. We all hope that it turns out to be a mild disease because that would be wonderful. But even Delta tends to be mild in young, healthy people. That doesn’t yet give me confidence. I looked at the latest data from South Africa; the hospitalisation numbers are starting to climb very, very quickly. It means some chunks of people are getting very sick. Less than Delta, more than Delta that’s going to take us a couple of weeks to sort out. I hope she is right; I just don’t know if she is.
Q: Does it strengthen the case for a booster dose?
It makes a case. Nobody thinks that vaccines will stop working completely. In a week or 10 days, we will know whether vaccines will be a little less effective or a lot less effective. Lab studies will start giving us some answers. Either way, a booster will help, particularly for high-risk people.
Q: How to stop Omicron’s spread?
Travel bans don’t work. People go around them. Travel protection, and not ban, may work for countries like South Africa where the caseload is high.
Q: Will the RT-PCR test pick up Omicron?
I think it will work just fine. Though it doesn’t pick up every instance of Delta either, RT-PCR is very, very sensitive.
Q: Will we need Omicron-specific vaccines?
It’s possible, given the rapid mutations. We may not need it. But it’s good to get started.
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