For the Viennese clinical pharmacologist Markus Zeitlinger, the pandemic circumstances changed by the omicron variant do not fundamentally change anything in the discussion about compulsory vaccination. Regardless of how you feel about it, Omicron is probably only slightly more harmless than Delta. The vaccinations are also still effective against the new variant, albeit weakened. It is fortunate that Austria is now going into the omicron wave with many freshly boosted people.
The board of directors of the University Clinic for Clinical Pharmacology at the Medical University of Vienna does not want to fundamentally evaluate the usefulness of compulsory vaccination, as it is to come in this country. He didn’t want to take a stand for or against the project, he told APA: “It’s more of a political decision.” However, Zeitlinger considers it a mistake to mix up the arguments about compulsory vaccination with the assessment of Omikron. Even if only because the obligation planned from February comes too late for the now rapidly building up wave.
Lower hospitalization rate
Apart from that, one cannot say from a scientific point of view that compulsory vaccination before Omikron would have made more sense than now in view of the new, more contagious variant. “That didn’t happen for me,” said Zeitlinger.
According to the current state of research, he would answer the question of whether omicron is “too harmless” to justify compulsory vaccination “clearly with no”. The first international data indicate a lower proportion of people infected with omicron who need hospital or even intensive care, in contrast to previous waves with other SARS-CoV-2 variants. Data from South Africa or various European countries show 50 to 65 percent lower probabilities here. However, this could also be related to the fact that in earlier waves asymptomatic infected people were discovered less often overall, which could make the hospitalization rates even lower and the variant look “apparently more harmless”.
All-time highs in many countries
“On the other hand, we have several countries, such as the USA, France, Spain or Italy, all of which have the phenomenon of being almost at their all-time maximum in terms of absolute hospitalization numbers, although the percentage of infected people there is also lower in hospital. Simply because so many have become infected with omicron in such a short time,” explained Zeitlinger.
The argument put forward that vaccinations would no longer work also does not hold. This can also be seen from the fact that hospitalizations did not increase immediately when Omikron became the dominant variant in Austria shortly before the turn of the year. Also, the incidences among the vaccinated did not jump significantly. It is also clear that many more unvaccinated people will end up in intensive care units in this country.
“Omicron is not harmless”
If fewer people in Austria were vaccinated, the situation would already be much more dramatic. According to initial data from Great Britain, the protection rates against hospitalization are still 80 percent for people who have recently been vaccinated three times with mRNA vaccines, even at Omikron. All of this also makes it clear “that Omicron is not harmless, even if it is probably a tad less dangerous than Delta,” says Zeitlinger.
Unfortunately, the protective effect in people who have been vaccinated twice compared to Omikron drops significantly a few months after the second bite. Although new data shows that the booster increases the effect again, it drops again to around 50 to 60 percent after around ten weeks. “The vaccination works very well if you have been vaccinated three times,” says Zeitlinger.
The fact that the Omikron wave is now hitting a relatively large number of people in Austria who were boosted towards the end of the year is a happy coincidence and is helping in the current situation. “Omicron would probably have gotten us worse a few months ago. But at some point you have to be lucky,” says the researcher.
According to Zeitlinger, the story that the more contagious variant will now affect the entire population in one way or another, and then everyone will be protected for the foreseeable future, is also not true: “A lot of people will be infected, that’s right – but not all of them either.” One cannot say how long the protection built up in this way remains in place and those who have recovered are “off the hook”, “we simply don’t have the data for this variant”. In addition, it continues to apply that an illness that has gone through carries far higher risks than vaccination.
Last but not least, it should not be expected that the pandemic will be over after the omicron wave, as some people are saying. On the contrary, the now high numbers worldwide are preparing the breeding ground for other variants whose dangerousness is open. A long-term strategy is therefore finally needed, which would be unthinkable without high vaccination rates. “Vaccination simply brings basic immunization with which I can in principle reach all parts of the population,” says Zeitlinger. Adapted booster vaccines would then suffice for any new variants, as they will also come for Omikron. (apa)