New variant plus our Covid-weariness frustrates pandemic control

Feb 5, 2022
mask sign covid
(Image: Unsplash)

It’s hardly surprising that a new variant has been detected in more than 55 countries, given only how little of poor countries’ populations have been vaccinated.

Viruses are parasites, they cannot reproduce unless they invade a host and harness that hosts machinery for reproduction to replicate themselves. As they multiply they are smart enough to deliberately build into the process error instructions so they don’t just produce identical twins, they produce a percentage of variations of themselves. Some of these may decrease the ability of the virus to invade and multiply but some may improve their chance of surviving and multiplying. The more successful variants soon predominate.

It’s obvious that the more susceptible hosts who are invaded the greater are the chances for more infectious variants to be sprung upon the world. Vaccination produces a hostile environment for invading viruses. The immune response of the vaccinated may not make viral multiplication impossible. There is plenty of evidence that the virus responsible for Covid-19 can multiply and be spread by the vaccinated, but the efficiency of the multiplication efforts is markedly diminished in the vaccinated. It is not surprising therefore that variants are so often found to have emerged from the unvaccinated populations of our poorest countries. The so called “BA2” variant of Omicron has developed from the above scenario.

As of last week 61 per cent of the  world’s population had received at least one dose of vaccine. Ten billion doses have been administered with 23 million administered each day but the poorest continue to miss out. Only 4 per cent of Nigerians have had one dose of vaccine and just 2 per cent are fully vaccinated. This is a tragic situation for our poorest in our unfair world and a continuing source of danger to us. Think survival, not altruism, as we face the challenge of correcting this. Distressing to think that we waste up to a 100,000 doses a day in our country!

So what do we know about Omicron BA2? Well, for starters we know what it looks like. It shares 32 mutations with the original Omicron, but BA2 also has 28 mutations which are different. Do these 28 variations on a theme give it any advantages over the original Omicron variant? Perhaps, it is remarkable that our virologists can already tell us that these mutations appear to represent an attempt by the virus to make the “spike protein” on the surface of the virus which is the ‘key’ the virus use to invade human cells, a better fit.

As of last week, BA2 had been detected in 55 countries. So far, 22 BA2 sequences have been reported in Australia. Data from Denmark where authorities have detected 18,000 cases of the variant, suggest it may be more infectious than BA1 but it probably does not cause more serious illness than BA1. The current PCR test we use to detect Omicron will need modification as it does not distinguish BAI from BA2 so I suspect there are many more than 22 cases here.

But what about the human “variants” who are aiding and abetting the continuation of the pandemic? The amount of misinformation that is influencing dangerous numbers of people in many countries continues to be a major problem and frustration.

Much has been written about the online conference sponsored recently from Washington by Robert Kennedy (he of the Kennedy clan). Kennedy has, for many years, been a prominent promoter of anti-vaccination rhetoric. In this conference he suggested that “authoritarian” demands for people to be vaccinated during this pandemic created a worse situation for people than that which Anne Frank found herself in during the Nazi regime! He later apologised having been reminded that Frank died in a concentration camp.

Australian MPs George Christensen, Senators Alex Antic and Matt Canavan, United Australia Party MP Craig Kelly and One Nation’s Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts also participated in the conference.

As I write, an aggressive mob has descended on Canberra to protest vaccine mandates and Covid restrictions. Inspired by recent protests in Canada, the “Convoy to Canberra” has truck drivers from Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia all making the trip to Parliament House. How appalling to read that Australian Federal Police were needed to defend the doors of Parliament House as hundreds of protesters moved towards the entrance. (Shades of January 6, 2021 in the US).

The Canberra Times reported that a large group gathered at the National Press Club and were heard chanting “no more mandates” and “arrest ScoMo” as the prime minister addressed the press club. The “Official Convoy to Canberra” Facebook page has gained more than 160,000 followers since it was set up on January 25.

We could spend much time analysing communication failures that may have contributed to this inability of so many to understand  that for those in critical industries, a “no jab, no job” mandate is ethically and logically indispensable. As it is we have supply chain failures crippling our economy as 10 per cent of the Australian workforce is unavailable on any given day because of Covid-19.

It is frustrating to note that, globally, similar pressures are resulting in governments prolonging the pandemic and the associated illness and deaths, by removing restrictions and mandates. Boris Johnson is even revoking the mandates for health professionals to be vaccinated! Ireland, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands are also prematurely abolishing vaccine mandates.

No one in Australia will ever be forced to have a vaccination but the vast majority of the population understands that the unvaccinated will be unable to pursue numerous critical roles in our community.

By now it is clear to most of us that our vaccination rates including a third booster dose for all are far too low to have vaccination alone safely eliminate Covid-19 from Australia. I am convinced a fourth dose will be essential for all over 65 and the immunocompromised. We should be preparing now for the vaccination of our two to five year old children, a crucial missing link in our defences. We are failing to meet the challenge of the logistics required to vaccinate fast enough. GPs cannot look after the sick and bear the burden of vaccinating children. We must do much more to facilitate distribution and delivery of our abundant supply of vaccine.

We are making a big mistake in our abandonment at this time of serious efforts to maintain social distancing and mask wearing when close to each other. How ironic that we ejected Novak Djokovic from the country as he may have been a threat to our efforts to contain the epidemic and then allowed thousands of non-mask wearing Australians to crowd into Rod Laver Arena where they cheered and embraced each other in their excitement as aerosolised virus was so readily distributed.

How frustrating that our governments have ignored urgings and a wealth of new important data that illustrates that the surgical masks worn by most are highly ineffective in protecting oneself and others from Omicron whereas the respirator type masks (N95 etc) are highly effective. Promotion, availability and subsidisation of the costs of these masks should be a major priority. Prevention is so much cheaper than treating the infected.

We are all Covid weary and desperately want it gone but that weariness which sees us actually perpetuating infections is as dangerous as the virus itself.

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