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Omicron is milder, but scientists say it’s still too early to relax

A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19 appears on a bus on First Street outside the US Capitol on Monday, January 10, 2022.

Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Infectious disease experts have warned that it is too early for the public to stop taking steps to avoid Covid-19 infection, despite health authorities claiming that it is inevitable that most people will catch the apparently milder omicron variant.

Many countries now have few or no Covid-related restrictions left, as increasing numbers of cases are weighed against vaccination rates. Leaders in some European countries have called for the corona crisis to begin shifting from pandemic to endemic and be treated as seasonal flu.

In the United Kingdom, where new cases are starting to ease from record highs after a rise in December, the government is reportedly preparing plans to completely scrap their emergency Covid laws, including requirements for self-isolation, according to The Telegraph.

Official data released on Monday showed that around 98% of the UK population now have antibody protection against the virus, either through vaccination or infection. Just over 80% of the country's population has received two doses of a Covid vaccine.

There is agreement among many that the highly transmissible omicron variant is so contagious that everyone will eventually get Covid. The White House Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted the tribe would "find just about everyone," CNN reported last week.

But many researchers still urge the public to do what they can to avoid infection.

Professor Liam Smeeth, a physician and director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CNBC that although omicron by nature seems milder, scientific knowledge is still "not as complete as we would like" about how the highly mutated variant will affect vulnerable individuals.

"If the vulnerable get pretty bad with omicron - and some of them will - if it all happens at once, if we just let it tear through society, then every health system in the world would be overwhelmed," he said in a phone call. calls.

"And it's a very, very gloomy thought - so grim that it's pretty scary. . "

Smeeth added that the increased transmissibility of omicrons meant that it still poses major risks, despite appearing to cause milder symptoms.

"Because it's so contagious, it can literally be millions of very sick people at the same time that no health care system could handle," he explained.

"You also have the fact that people get sick leave - it does not cause serious illness, but it does cause enough people to stay home. [to recover]. And if it happens across society at once, even within a few weeks, it means the police are going to fight, supermarkets will not open, the health care system will not work - there would be a pretty big social disruption in walk."

"So while it's reasonably mild, there are reasons to want it to happen more gradually," he said.

Public health officials have also warned of the risk of "long Covid." The WHO has previously estimated that between 10% and 20% of Covid patients experience persistent symptoms for several months after infection. These prolonged symptoms may include persistent fatigue, shortness of breath, fog and depression.

In the UK, where Covid isolation times were cut to five days on Monday, Smeeth said he believed the government was implementing a "fairly sensible, gradual phasing out."

Meanwhile, Philip Anyanwu, a public health lecturer at Cardiff University's School of Medicine, noted a perception that the omicron variant makes Covid less of a threat became more common among the general population.

"Either way [causing milder symptoms]"I think we still need to keep the measures that helped us get through, especially wearing face masks, taking social distance and often washing our hands," he said by phone.

He argued that it was too early for the public to stop trying to reduce Covid-related risks, especially in the winter - the "most crucial period in terms of infectious diseases."

Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, said via Twitter on Sunday that living with the virus "does not mean doing nothing and letting 'mostly the old and vulnerable die'."

"People who wear high-quality masks and good ventilation are not restrictive, but save a lot of lives," she said.

"Are we seriously saying that we will not even lift a finger to save lives for people who are 'old and vulnerable'?"

Risk of Covid 'Armageddon'

Smeeth warned that while there was reason to be cautiously optimistic, it was still too early to completely rule out further surprises.

"Everything in the story would tell you that this variant is so mutated that there are only a few more mutations it can do, and the story of coronavirus is that they tend to mutate into a milder form on the way out to to become either endemic to society or just disappear altogether, "he said. "It seems to be there [omicron] walks. It's very contagious, so it's going to be quite difficult to replace. "

However, Smeeth added that Covid "behaves completely differently from other coronaviruses" and warns that it would be foolish to rule out another new, more serious variant.

"It could well come up with another variant that causes more serious illness and is more contagious - it could really be Armageddon, it could really be the science fiction drug, like we saw last year."

Anyanwu agreed that it was still too early to completely relax.

"We know that omicron is more transmissive, but not as serious as other variants - but there is no guarantee of what the next variant will be," he said.

"One of the reasons omicron spread so far is that by the time it entered the UK population, many public health measures had been reduced. We played more of a reactive approach to controlling it instead of being proactive."

He added that the world was still in the midst of the pandemic and that it was too early to return to complete normalcy.

"Getting rid of all measures puts us at risk if a new variant comes in," he warned. "It can be less transmissive or more transmissive, it can be more serious in terms of outcomes like death and hospitalization."

"It is reasonable for individuals to stick to some measures, even when many of the government's rules are relaxed," warned Anyanwu.

"Whether government restrictions remain or are removed, individuals can still make decisions about how they go about their daily activities."

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