When COVID-19 hit the ground two years ago, the world was less than prepared to handle it. But health experts and authorities were quick to come up with safety protocols and health measures that helped mitigate exposure and minimize risks. These are your basic mask-wearing, social distancing, and quarantine mandates, coupled with testing and vaccine recommendations.
Fast forward to new variants, such as the Delta, and going back to these basic health and safety protocols always proved effective. But at the time of Omicron, these familiar solutions that haven’t failed us before may be a little bit challenged.
Omicron: A Unique Variant
When the Omicron strain was first discovered in November of 2021, scientists had initial speculations about it. They predicted that Omicron had unique mutations that increased its transmissibility and improved its ability to infect the human body’s cells. This prediction led the World Health Organization to classify Omicron as a variant of concern.
In a span of only two months since Omicron was identified, this strain has infected millions of people in America, accounting for 95% of new COVID-19 cases. On the first week of January 2022, 2 million people were infected with Omicron, breaking all-time records since the pandemic started in 2020.
The Omicron surge has surpassed the Delta’s numbers dramatically, and this is owing to its higher transmissibility. Omicron has the ability to replicate itself in the body faster than previous COVID-19 stains, therefore making it 160 to 200 percent more transmissible. Its adverse effects on the human body also appear much faster, taking only 3 days after infection to produce symptoms, which are thankfully less severe than those of Delta and other previous variants.
The Downfall of Testing Practices
Rapid antigen tests and PCR testing have been heavily relied on and successful in detecting infections before they became contagious. These have been used as official testing practices by government agencies, travel authorities, healthcare institutions, and corporate settings.
But with the Omicron variant being more contagious and having a fast intubation period, these testing solutions prove to fall short. Rapid antigen tests have only 50% clinical sensitivity, meaning they’re not as effective at detecting viral RNA. While they are good at picking up high levels of the virus, researchers report that they are unable to detect people who were on the threshold of infectiousness.
PCR tests, on the other hand, yield results only after at least eight hours in the lab, at which point the infected individual could have already spread the virus to others. With transmissions happening faster, the long wait of PCR test results allows Omicron to slip through the cracks.
Established Treatments for COVID-19 Symptoms Don’t Work on Omicron
The only positive side to Omicron is that its symptoms are not as severe as other strains of COVID-19. Shortness of breath, loss of smell or taste, and other severe effects are no longer common. Omicron produces only mild, flu-like symptoms, including coughs, congestion, runny nose, and fatigue, especially in vaccinated and boosted individuals. These can be treated at home via symptomatic therapy.
But that’s not to downplay its dangers. Hospitalization rates are still on the rise, with frontliners seeing more and more unvaccinated individuals getting admitted for severe, life-threatening Omicron symptoms. During the Delta surge, doctors have used a series of illness-targeted treatments that proved to be effective.
One class of treatments is monoclonal antibodies, which targeted COVID-19’s spike protein to stop it from invading the cell membrane. But because Omicron has developed over 30 mutations in spike protein, anti-SARS-CoV2 monoclonal antibodies are insufficient.
As a solution, Harvard researchers have proposed the use of anti-viral pills, specifically Merck’s mulnopiravir and Pfizer’s Paxlovid. While their ability to hold up against Omicron has been successful in clinical trials, they have not proven significance in real-world cases. Anti-viral drugs also work best three days after the symptoms appear, but because Omicron has a faster replication rate, the window for antiviral treatment is shorter and harder to catch.
Further, experts are hesitant to use mulnopiravir because its ability to introduce genetic mutations in viral RNA also carries the risk of developing mutations in human genes. Paxlovid, on the other hand, contains drugs that can inhibit other medications and cause overdosage. Doctors, however, prefer Paxlovid as careful and diligent use can minimize risks. But its supply is too scarce to make it the go-to remedy for severe Omicron cases.
Omicron Forcing Health Experts and Authorities to Rethink Testing and Treatment Protocols
Omicron seems to be dodging testing and treatment bullets made to fight it. This calls for new efforts tailored to the unique variant and that target it specifically. But with the current battle of surging cases and overwhelmed healthcare systems, rethinking testing and treatment protocols is easier said than done.
While new solutions are being studied and considered, let’s stick to what we know:
- Mask-wearing helps reduce exposure to viral particles and therefore prevents contracting COVID-19.
- Getting vaccinated and boosted mitigates the severity of symptoms and avoids life-threatening diseases.
- Staying home eliminates transient encounters with Omicron-positive individuals.
Until we know more about how to better fight Omicron, these measures that have helped us through the storm for the past two years are still our best bet.