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UK’s Omicron Surge: Lessons for India – Heed Scientific Advice

UK Ministers must stop demanding “incontrovertible evidence” that Omicron risks overwhelming the NHS.

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It feels like groundhog day. A dithering government, doing U-turns on restrictive measures when cases rise exponentially, has witnessed this country face one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the world through the first two waves of Alpha and Delta variants. This third wave of Omicron seems no different, with 80,000 to around 90,000 cases each day, outstripping some European nations. It is well understood that the more virus there is, the more cases there are, the more chances there are for it to break through vaccine defence, and to even mutate further. This is despite the fact that the UK’s vaccination rates have been some of the best in the world based on the percentage of the population. So, what is going wrong?

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'Possibly the Worst Part of the Pandemic'

Data show that while the successful vaccination programme was pushing down admissions, the removal of restrictions led to the rise of the Delta variant. UK residents were much more likely than people in Germany, France, Spain and Italy to say they no longer wear a face mask; COVID-19 cases are much higher here than in those countries, according to a study by Imperial College, London. The UK relaxed many restrictions sooner than most of the rest of Western Europe. People in England, Wales and Scotland have been able to go to nightclubs and attend gatherings of unlimited numbers of people since the summer, unlike in many other countries. The survey data suggest that people in the UK are also slightly more likely than some of their nearest European neighbours to take public transport and less likely to avoid going out.

Seeing the exponential rise in Omicron cases, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally asked residents to wear masks in public transport and indoor retail outlets, but the instructions give no definitive clarity. He assured the public that Christmas would see no further restrictions. But the Queen has cancelled all Christmas celebrations, and some well-known pub chains’ owners have closed their outlets, setting an example by action, which the government has failed to do.

As Bill Gates said on Twitter, “We could be entering the worst part of the pandemic”, it is time for politicians to heed scientific advice – we have already suffered enough.

While the hospitality sector in the UK is once again suffering during its peak business season, airlines may not be far, too. According to scientific advisors, aircraft passengers are twice or even three times more likely to catch COVID-19 during a flight since the emergence of Omicron.

India Should Get Going With Boosters Already

While there is no doubt that the UK surged ahead in its rollout of the vaccine, which saved many lives, scientists believe that like Israel, UK’s early vaccination could be a reason for the higher number of cases due to waning vaccine immunity. While the Pfizer vaccine immunity is believed to wane in six months, Lancet has said that the Astrazeneca (Covishield in India) vaccine immunity wanes in three months. This is where the need for a booster dose becomes critical.

The UK was initially slow with its booster programme, but with the advent of Omicron, 24-hour vaccination centres and army assistance has been called in to accelerate booster vaccination. In fact, Israel is now starting a second booster programme. It is imperative India gets going with its booster programme and vaccinating children with Omicron cases rising in the country. According to several scientists and on-ground studies, following the two AstraZeneca vaccines, an mRNA booster gives greater protection. Many people I know in the UK who had AstraZeneca now have had Pfizer boosters. It is probably time India moves to secure mRNA vaccines.

While the world has been suffering from this pandemic for two years now, scientists have been working at finding cures for this deadly virus. The one thing that the UK did well in was securing the vaccines even before approval. But political vacillations overriding medical and scientific advice has landed us in a mess.

The UK has crossed the 100,000-cases-a-day mark already, and health leaders have warned over that over 50,000 frontline medical workers may be down with COVID-19, putting severe pressure on hospitals and the National Health Service (NHS).

In preparation for a wave of severe illness by the Omicron variant, the UK has now secured an additional 4.25 million courses of two anti-COVID-19 pills from Merck and Pfizer, which are expected to arrive early next year. It will give the UK access to 1.75 million additional courses of Merck Sharp and Dohme’s antiviral Lagevrio and an extra 2.5 million courses of Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill. The supply agreements are in addition to existing orders for around 7,30,000 treatment courses of the two antivirals combined. Both treatments are taken shortly after the onset of symptoms and will be targeted at vulnerable patients. Although yet to be approved by the UK medicine regulator, the Pfizer pill, according to early lab tests, appears to hold up against Omicron.

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A Circuit Breaker

While such a quick response is wonderful, it would help if politicians could, for once, heed scientific advice and hawkish Ministers could stay away from demanding “incontrovertible evidence” that Omicron risks overwhelming the NHS, all to justify the cost of taking action. Over the next couple of days, there should be better clarity on the Omicron hospitalisation rate.

But scientists have warned that getting the evidence the Ministers want may be “a tall order” as Omicron cases are doubling quicker than every 48 hours, and thereby, the number of those getting severe disease is also rising exponentially. It takes about 10-14 days after contracting the disease to reach hospitalisation.

Many scientists remain sceptical of claims that Omicron triggers less severe disease. Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit, writes: “The only thing that could work in time is a short circuit breaker to limit indoor social interaction (and return the rule of six when outside, while keeping outdoor hospitality, shops and schools open), as proposed by Independent Sage and Sage. New data on severity and spread are arriving by the day and if good news, the circuit breaker can be lifted rapidly. But we need to act now.”

Scotland and Wales have already announced further restrictions post-Christmas. Acting swiftly is what all countries need to do. “It is transmission that drives impact more than severity,” said Jeremy Farrer, director of the Wellcome Trust and a former member of Sage. He added that the country is in “the most difficult, most uncertain” period of the pandemic so far.

It is best not to be fooled by Omicron being mild. Long COVID-19 is a dangerous reality that is barely mentioned. It ought to be one of the main incentives to avoid Omicron.

(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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