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COVID-19 | Omicron: The ‘viral Jason Bourne’ that can ‘overwhelm’ the world by spring, says infectious disease specialist Dr Leong Hoe Nam

The Independent logo The Independent 4/12/2021 Anna Maria Romero
© The Independent Singapore

Singapore — A well known infectious disease specialist in private practice predicts that the newly-discovered Omicron variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 is likely to “overwhelm the whole world” by the first half of next year, if not sooner.

Dr Leong Hoe Nam, of Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, told CNBC on Wednesday (Dec 1) that the new variant of the coronavirus responsible for the pandemic is extremely good at dodging immune systems.

Speaking to CNBC’s Street Signs Asia, Dr Leong said that Omicron can even be called “the viral Jason Bourne” as it does everything to evade immune systems by changing the virus’ spike proteins.

Pharmaceutical companies have already announced that they’re looking at new vaccines to target the variant specifically, but testing their efficacy against Omicron will take between three and six months at least.

“But frankly, Omicron will dominate and overwhelm the whole world in three to six months,” added Dr Leong.

He called the idea that a vaccine specifically made against Omicron “nice” but “not practical.” 

He explained why: “We won’t be able to rush out the vaccines in time and by the time the vaccines come, practically everyone will be infected [with] Omicron given this high infectious and transmissibility.”

The new variant had scientists on the alert last week because of the unusually large number of mutations it has, which could reduce the effectiveness of existing Covid vaccines.

South African scientists first reported the Omicron variant on Nov 25, and it’s now driving a surge of new infections for a fourth wave of the disease in that country.

Omicron is now known to be present in at least 24 countries, including Singapore.

Epidemiologist and WHO technical lead on COVID-19 Maria van Kerkhove said that Thursday, “We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves. This is one to watch, I would say we have concern.”

The variant has an “incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern,” echoed Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London.

On the ground in South Africa, however, how seriously ill those infected with the Omicron variant will be won’t be known until “people get so sick that they need to go to hospital” which typically occurs “three, four weeks later,” Prof Salim Abdool Karim of the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus told the BBC.

So far, most of those known to be infected with the new variant in South Africa have only suffered mild symptoms.

“The feedback we’re getting from the ground is that there’s really no red flags – we’re not seeing anything dramatically different, what we’re seeing is what we are used to,” the professor added.

Experts are saying that the current vaccines can still provide a level of protection against the Omicron variant.

“I do think that our current vaccines will hold up to a certain extent, with this new variant,” Dr Syra Madad, a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told CNBC. “It may reduce vaccine effectiveness by a couple of notches, but that is yet to be seen.”

Dr Leong thinks that a three-dose vaccine regimen is likely to provide protection against severe Covid, but he underlined that the vaccination rates in many countries continue to be low.

Even if only 1 or 2 per cent of infections ends up in hospitals with severe disease, he said, this could still overwhelm healthcare systems. /TISG

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