Experts: Omicron variant affects the youth more than the aged

Experts have cautioned that the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, is affecting young people more than the aged, hence the need for the youth to get vaccinated.

According to Prof Walter Jaoko, a Medical Microbiology and Tropical Medicine expert at the University of Nairobi, more cases of the Omicron variant have been recorded among young people than older people.

This emerged as a laboratory experiment whose findings were released yesterday revealed a “very large drop” in how well the Pfizer vaccine antibodies neutralised the new strain.

The study by researchers from the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, found out that the Omicron variant resulted in about 40-fold reduction in levels of neutralising antibodies produced by people who had received two doses of the Pfizer shots, compared with other strains.

“The only way to get mild attacks in case of any is to get vaccinated. This would mean you protecting yourself and your loved ones,” Prof Jaoko said.

“The loss of immune protection is “robust, but not complete”, Alex Sigal, head of research at the laboratory, said on the effectiveness of the vaccine against the new variant.

The study further showed that blood from people who had received two doses of the vaccine and had a prior infection was mostly able to neutralise the variant, suggesting that booster doses of the vaccine could help in fending off serious infection.

The lab test was based on blood specimens from 12 people who had been vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, according to a manuscript posted on the lab’s website.

Effectiveness of current vaccines

While neutralising antibodies are an indicator of the body’s immune response, scientists believe other kinds of cells such as B-cells and T-cells also are stimulated by the vaccines and help in protecting one against the effects of the coronavirus.

The results, however, do not suggest that the vaccine is less able to prevent severe illness or death.

There is also no significant data on the effectiveness of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZenecca vaccines against the new Covid-19 variant.

Dr Anthony Fauci, a top United States infectious disease expert, said the Omicron variant has a higher degree of transmissibility but is less severe.

The United States is already conducting studies to determine the effectiveness of the current vaccines against the new variant, though  preliminary data in the manuscript has not yet been peer-reviewed.

However, according to the World Health Organization, existing vaccines are capable of protecting people who contract the Omicron variant from severe illness. WHO further explained that there was no sign that Omicron would be better at defying vaccines than other variants.

“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so for Omicron,” Dr Michael Joseph Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said.

The Omicron variant was first detected in southern Africa and has since sounded alarms of another surge in infections, with more countries reporting cases.

Vaccines to tackle Omicron

The variant has so far been reported in the US, Europe, Israel and China, among other parts of the world.

Several countries have banned or imposed tough restrictions on travellers from countries in southern Africa, where the new variant is said to be more widespread.

The WHO classified it as a “variant of concern”, but said there was no evidence to warrant new vaccines specifically designed to tackle the Omicron variant.

In East Africa, Uganda has already detected at least seven cases of the new variant among travellers who entered the country in late November.

A report from the Uganda Virus Research Institute (Uvri) indicates that from 13 samples collected on November 29 from travellers at Entebbe International Airport, 11 were sequenced and seven turned out positive for the Omicron variant.

“The travellers arrived from Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Netherlands, aboard Ethiopian Airways, Uganda Airlines, Kenya Airlines and Airlink,” Uvri said in a statement on December 6.

Ugandan Health Minister Jane Aceng said last week that incoming travellers who tested positive would be put under home-based care or hospital isolation depending on the severity of the cases.

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