Time to go back to basics in coronavirus fight
COVID-19 is on the rise again. Many thought that the recurrent spikes were supposed to be seasonal, like the flu, but this disease seems to have a mind of its own.
Increases in the rates of infection are putting health services everywhere under stress, though less than when we did not have the vaccine.
I am writing these lines as I nurse my own COVID-19 infection. In the UK, every one of us seems to know someone who is suffering from the virus — the old, the young, the vulnerable and especially the children. Similar rises are being registered in France, China and the Middle East, which look likely to dampen the holidays that are only now kick-starting again after two and a half years of disruption.
The war in Ukraine, rising fuel prices, inflation, the cost of living globally and food shortages have seemingly pushed information about the new omicron subvariants to the bottom of the news cycle. Those pressures have even led governments to reduce funding for scientific modeling that engages in the day-to-day follow-up on the progress of COVID-19 and its variants and advises on how to lessen their impact on people and industries worldwide.
Have we become complacent again? Are we failing to respect the virus and its multitude of variants? Have we, above all, decided to abandon all that we learned in the past 30 months about taming the virus through social distancing, appropriate hygiene, ventilation and wearing face masks where possible to limit the inhalation of airborne droplets, which is the main method of transmission?
Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are to blame for this latest surge. They are armed with the original omicron variant’s ability to spread rapidly and overcome the immune defenses deployed by our bodies to keep the virus out.
Research in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that BA.4 and BA.5 can “substantially escape” the protection afforded by vaccines and previous infections. A similar study in Science magazine showed that omicron is like a “stealth virus” that does not arm you to fight reinfection.
The vaccine is one very important layer of protection, but that alone is not enough in the face of the ever-emerging variants.
Government mantras everywhere have insisted that we need to learn to live with the virus. The vaccine is one very important layer of protection, but that alone is not enough in the face of the ever-emerging variants. So should we go back to the drawing board to update the vaccines or start applying some common sense to our behavior to try to escape infection altogether?
Clearly, the work on our first line of defense must continue with the utmost urgency. Vaccines tweaked to include the emerging omicron subvariants can offer improved protection when used as a booster. The European Medicines Agency has urged global health regulators to update shots to respond to the emerging strains. The vaccines that are in use continue to provide good protection against hospitalization and death, but their effectiveness has taken a hit as the virus has evolved.
Another weapon in the world’s arsenal against the virus is effective ventilation. Properly ventilating public spaces could go a long way toward curbing transmission. Antoine Flahault of the Geneva University Institute of Global Health said that, “to stem the tide of the pandemic and to reduce mortality, we need to reduce the levels of contamination, which the vaccine cannot do alone.”
There is no need to stress once again that the virus is primarily transmitted through the air, carried in large droplets or fine aerosols after an infected person breathes out, talks, sings or shouts. All this we have heard before. We grew accustomed to talking about the dangers of not keeping our distance or ventilating closed spaces, yet we have now long since abandoned the precautionary measures altogether.
Governments have also been slow in meeting their pledges to finance the ventilation of public spaces, starting with schools, hospitals, public transport, offices, bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, it is enough to catch a flight to any destination to see the nonchalance with which we have been flouting the rules of keeping our face masks on in the airport and aboard the plane.
You hear a lot of people saying that, because they recently got the virus, they have a heightened level of immunity against reinfection. But this is not the case, as the science has been telling us that, with the new omicron subvariants, reinfection by stealth seems to be occurring. Unlike with the delta, beta and alpha variants, a person infected with omicron can be infected again shortly after.
Yes, the science is catching up with omicron and its subvariants. Novavax is one pharmaceutical company that is pressing ahead with producing shots that protect against the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. But until that is available and in order to avoid the emergence of new variants, we need to go back to basics and apply our common sense by approaching travel and social mixing in a considerate and responsible way. That will limit the feeding of the virus’s variant-producing machine.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.