Omicron Might Be the ‘Best Variant’ of SARS-CoV-2, So Far: Here Is Why
By Sandor Szabo, MD, PhD, MPH
Professor & Dean, School of Medicine, American University of Health Sciences, Signal Hill, CA
Among the several genetic variants of the SARS-Co-2 virus that causes COVID-19, the alpha and delta mutations seemed to cause the most severe forms of the disease, while the most recent, omicron variant (discovered in South Africa at the end of November 2021) appears to be the most rapidly spreading and infectious agent during this almost 3-year pandemic. One of the reasons for the relatively good news about omicron is the accumulating clinical observation that this virus mutation affects only the upper respiratory tract and not the lungs, which was the main initial target of the delta variant. Hence, people infected with omicron have only mild, flu (common cold)-like symptoms & signs.
A recent summary in Nature Briefing on “Omicron’s feeble attack on the lungs could make it less dangerous” demonstrated the scientific basis for this, e.g., omicron ‘struggles’ to attach to ACE-2 receptors in the lung, but cannot, at least in most cases. This article also states: “Authorities in South Africa announced on 30 December that the country had passed its omicron peak without a major spike in deaths. And a 31 December UK government report said that people in England who were infected with omicron were about half as likely to require hospitalization or emergency care as those infected with delta.” 1
This conclusion actually supports the initial impression that “Omicron Variant Might Help Defend Against Delta, Lab Study Suggests.” 2 Furthermore, we now know that vaccinated people who get infected with omicron get a very high level, so called “hybrid” or “super” immunity. This, in good part, is based on the fact (described below in a recent issue of Nature Briefing) that the additional omicron infection elevates not only our soluble antibodies (produced by our B lymphocytes and plasma cells) but also activates our T cells, i.e., our killer lymphocytes that kill & eliminate infected cells of our body! This is a major discovery and further good news in our struggles during COVID-19 pandemic and:
Killer T immune cells still recognize Omicron variant: Evidence is building that specialized immune cells called T cells can recognize variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including omicron, even when antibodies can’t. In people who have been infected or vaccinated, neutralizing antibodies bind to a handful of regions on the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. When those sites mutate, antibodies can’t recognize the virus, and protection fades. T cells, however, are more resilient. By killing infected cells, T cells can limit the spread of infection — and potentially reduce the chance of serious illness. The findings raise the question of whether researchers assessing the potential efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines should look at T-cell responses, and not just the levels of antibodies they trigger.3
Based on these new basic science and public health data, most of us believe that “coronavirus case counts outlived their use” (LA Times, Jan. 5, 2022). The most important information within these statistics is the number of hospitalizations and mortality rates – which have remained relatively stable – despite the fact the ERs are overcrowded (since people go there just to get tested). Look at the numbers (4):
Thus, although we are not out of the pandemic yet, and keeping in mind what some of us have been saying from mid-2020, i.e., ‘COVID-19 may fade away, but it will never go away,’ 5 we are on the right track (based on the public health history data). Most epidemics, as with the 100-year-old ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic and the more recent SARS & MERS epidemics, viruses get attenuated, becoming weak, but still able to create a ‘herd immunity.’ The most pessimistic predictions in the public health community are that eventually, soon-or-later, all or most of us will get mild COVID-19, but we shall survive. However, for the time being, let’s push for vaccinations and keep up all the preventive measures! We conclude with this optimistic headline in a recent issue of the New York Times: “Omicron is in retreat; Fewer cases…; Plunging cases…; Low risks…; Effective boosters….” 6 Let’s hope that this trend will continue!
- Nature Briefing, January 6, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00007-8
- New York Times, December 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/28/health/covid-omicron-antibodies-delta.html
- Nature Briefing, January 12, 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00063-0?utm_source=Nature+Briefing&utm_campaign=41945db935-briefing-dy-20220112&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c9dfd39373-41945db935-44227001
- USA Today, January 5, 2022, https://twitter.com/USATODAY/status/1478690993587195906
- Szabo S. COVID-19: New disease and chaos with panic, associated with stress. Med. Sci., 2020, 59, 41-62, https://www.scopus.com/authid/detail.uri?authorId=7202937719
- New York Times, January 19, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/19/briefing/omicron-variant-cases.html