Do you need to keep up with Omicron offspring?

It like the time is now. Every few months, we warn that an Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has spawned another variant, one that is more transmissible than the one that is rapidly being outgrown.

The new entity is given a name, an unwieldy string of letters and numbers separated by periods. There is discussion – some of it breathless – on Twitter and in the media about the threat posed by the new alternative. People still following the news of Covid-19 are worried. People determined to ignore Covid are not paying attention.

Rinse and repeat.


The session questions some experts about the usefulness of these discussions. After all, we’re not obsessed with any strain of H3N2 flu that caused most of the illnesses that moved across the United States in an abnormally early flu season. That’s because new strains of existing influenza viruses may make us more susceptible to infection, but they don’t make us defenseless against the flu. The same is true for SARS-2 sub-variants – but this sometimes goes into decline.

“It happens every two months. It kind of feels like Groundhog Day, except for the ‘frighties,’” said Angela Rasmussen, a coronavirus virologist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization.


(For the record, Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, strongly disagrees with the idea that people need not pay so much attention to whatever variant or variant is currently circulating, arguing among other things that public discussion can encourage more people to Get the latest boosted picks.)

Rasmussen has spent a lot of time recently handling interview requests from journalists keen to explore the significance of XBB.1.5. It is not clear if the public is getting information with which they can do much.

If a troubling new variant materializes, Rasmussen said, a version of the virus that has fundamentally eroded our immune systems’ ability to fend off SARS-CoV-2 that requires a rapid update of Covid vaccines, the public will need to take note. But in the absence of that, “It’s really hard for me to see how it’s doable, or really helpful for anyone to know that XBB.1.5 is taking over when we thought it might be BQ.1.1.”

Rasmussen is quick to stress that she does not suggest that Covid is no longer a problem, or that the world should stop tracking the evolution of SARS-CoV-2. “We must,” she insisted. “But does the public really need to be on the edge of their seat about that? I don’t think they actually are. And I think that… that’s kind of confusing people.”

Rasmussen said the actions people must take to stave off XBB.1.5 are the same actions they must take to stave off its predecessors. stay up to date on vaccinations; Get reinforcements when advised. Consider wearing a quality mask in public. Take steps to try to avoid injury.

“I don’t see how knowing the variables we’re talking about changes the advice we’re going to give to the public to the people who are going to listen,” she said.

Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, and professor of infection and immunology at the University of Oxford, actually likes that people — some people anyway — are paying attention to the viral evolution of SARS-2. He believes it increases public understanding of the complexity of respiratory pathogens and how difficult it is to control them through vaccination.

But he disagrees with the content of the coverage of sub-variants, saying some of them cast these developments in a very sinister light.

“[T]”He has over-framed news stories with misinformation about the significance of each new public health variable,” he wrote in an email. “In highly vaccinated populations with Covid-19, such as the UK and USA, pandemic levels of death from Covid-19 will not return as a result of viral progression due to the immune wall across the population, but crisis narratives in the media suggest the worst.”

Pollard has a point. But it’s not the media that starts sounding alarm bells every time a new variant hits the radar. Some scientists are taking to the public square — also known as Twitter — to share information about what is known about the new strain. Some discussion is measured. some less than that. Reporters pick up on the aired concerns.

Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at Britain’s University of Nottingham, is frustrated with scientists whose conjectures about how new variants and immune sub-variants will evade relied on studies measuring how well one component of our immune response, called neutralizing antibodies, identifies the new strain. These are the easiest studies to do, and the quickest to come up when a new strain is discovered. But neutralizing antibodies are only one type of our immune system’s weapon against the virus. Focusing on them alone ignores the fact that our arsenals contain another important firepower we bring to combat.

“I think what it doesn’t really include is the subtlety and eloquence of your immune system and also its ability to evolve and respond to the evolution of the virus,” Paul said.

However, he did not leave the media off the hook. “I think journalists have caught on to the fact that if you mention a variable, people’s ears will tingle,” he said. “Because there is very little new about SARS-CoV-2.”

What is the result of this type of coverage? Rasmussen said that people are either detached or afraid. “Neither of those outcomes encourages the thing that we need to happen, which is for people to get bivalent boosters, possibly in high transmission settings while also considering taking other precautions.”

Some of these discussions ignore the basics of biology. When people begin to develop immunity to the virus, it must develop to be able to continue to infect people. Three years after we lived with SARS-CoV-2, most people on the planet have been infected (in some cases multiple times), vaccinated (in some cases multiple times), or a combination of the two. The virus must use new tricks to get around our heightened defenses.

“It’s important to make clear that variants will continue to emerge because the very survival of the virus depends on it,” Pollard said. “We can expect new variants for the rest of our collective lives, but we may expect less frequent waves in the future as immunity across the population continues to grow.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s lead figure on Covid-19, admitted she was surprised that she was still being quoted as saying this or that variant was more transmissible than those that came before. “I say that every time,” she said. Each new variant or sub-variant must be more portable than the previous one, or it will expire. “That’s what viruses do,” Van Kerkhove said.

She is uncomfortable with the idea of ​​telling people that they don’t need to care about the details of every successful version of the virus, preferring to stress that people should understand that the World Health Organization, national public health agencies, scientists and governments around the world are watching the viral evolution of SARS-2 and constantly assessing whether it Vaccines still work or need to be updated, and whether public health advice should change.

“I don’t want people to be like, ‘Hey, don’t worry.'” But I also don’t want to be like, ‘The sky is falling,'” Van Kerkhove said. “And frankly, people who want to listen to us do. people who don’t, really really No.”

Topol, as mentioned earlier, isn’t a fan of the suggestion that ordinary people don’t need to pay close attention to every new variable. He resents the idea that this isn’t information that people can act on, suggesting that public discussion of XBB.1.5 might push more people in this country to get a bivalent booster.

according to latest data From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 15.4% of people over the age of five in the United States received the up-to-date booster. Even among people 65 and older – those most likely to die from Covid – less than 40% got the new booster, which targets the original strain of SARS-2 and the Omicron strain. Topol described this rate of absorption as “pathetic”.

And we’re seeing the effects of this in people 65 and older, where hospitalization rates are alarmingly high. Most of them are preventable.

Topol is worried about XBB.1.5; He thinks it’s a serious enough threat that the World Health Organization should give it a Greek name, the way the WHO used letters from the Greek alphabet to highlight that Alpha, Delta, Omicron, and a number of other strains were different enough that they got a designation. Variables of concern.

XBB.1.5 is a fork of Omicron, but Van Kerkhove STAT said In September, the WHO will give a variant Greek name if it feels the breed behaved differently enough to justify it. On Wednesday, a panel of experts advised the World Health Organization on the viral development conservative judgment on importing XBB.1.5, saying there is not enough evidence yet to know whether it will erode the protection of the vaccine or cause more serious disease.

Topol equated the idea of ​​toning down the discussions as giving in to the virus. “I don’t agree that we are powerless, defenseless,” he said, insisting the country needed better Covid vaccines — nasal vaccines that should prevent infection — and government financial support to develop them. Concerned individuals, of course, can’t get the Republican-controlled House to authorize funding for Operation Warp Speed ​​2.0, Topol said, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t pressure their elected representatives to support the work.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, is somewhere between Rasmussen and Topol on this matter.

He said the emergence of a new alternative provides an opportunity to stress the importance of getting a booster dose and the value of wearing an N-95 mask in public. Osterholm said that while he acknowledged most people have picked their camps on the issues of reinforcements and masks, there are still some gains to be made. “If I could capture even 1%, I would.”

But he acknowledged that we may reach the point where people can no longer process information. “It does no good to say to the audience: Oh, by the way, this is XYZ247 dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. They get lost. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Three years into the pandemic, Osterholm said, public health has yet to figure out how to communicate effectively about the evolution of the virus.

“None of us yet really understand how to interpret the scientific information that keeps getting variants and sub-variants and try to translate that into meaningful public health policy — or for that matter, how to talk about it,” he said. “I think we’re in a place right now where we’re trying to understand: How do we talk about this [in a way] Is this good for people and has general health implications? “

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