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COVID-19 Round-up: Boosters, Omicron, the Covid Pill? Experts are Divided on How the Pandemic will End by Bridget Ryder

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COVID-19 Round-up: Boosters, Omicron, the Covid Pill? Experts are Divided on How the Pandemic will End

With the Omicron variant spreading like wildfire and many countries seeing record infection rates–even while in many cases hospitalization is much lower–the COVID-19 pandemic reached a turning point in the days before Christmas.

But experts aren’t unanimous on what measures are adequate for the new situation. 

Studies published just before Christmas showed that the Omicron strain of COVID-19 could be a blessing in disguise. It is 70% less likely to cause serious illness or lead to hospitalization than the Delta variant, according to a study from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases published on December 21st. Research from the UK and Scotland backed up the findings of the South African study. The British researchers also found that one-third of the normal vaccination dose would provide substantial protection against the Omicron variant. 

Researchers aren’t ready to confirm that COVID-19 is resolving into just another respiratory infection, but the news delighted the stock market, according to bolsomania.com, as it seemed that there was an end in sight to the pandemic and its economic consequences.  

Another bit of good news is the approval of medications to specifically treat COVID-19 at home. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved pills developed by Pfizer and Merk the week before Christmas. In clinical trials, both were shown to reduce symptoms and hospitalization significantly. In November, the UK approved a treatment for mild to moderate cases. 

At the moment, though, countries where cases are increasing have had to deal with that reality, and the response includes considering yet more vaccinations as well as restrictions in public life.

In Spain, Italy, and Greece, masks are now required even in outdoor spaces. These are the only three countries with the measure in place, and in Spain, it has both citizens and experts divided, many considering the government’s only nation-wide response to increasing cases nonsensical. 

In comments to the radio station Cadena Ser, Harvard public health expert Elvis García said, “We need to be much more coherent with our measures. I don’t care if you wear a mask outside if you then go inside to a bar and are there with your friends without a mask.” In Spain, masks are required in all public indoor spaces, but restaurants are operating and patrons sit at tables and bars eating, drinking, and conversing while their masks lie on the table or get tucked into purses.  

Paris cancelled its New Year celebrations, and Germany limited private parties to 10 people, closed nightclubs, and banned spectators from major events. Spain’s Catalonia region has also closed night clubs. Bars in Finland were required to close at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The Netherlands greeted the heart of the holiday season with a lockdown. Belgium has closed theatres.

Other countries are considering fighting the virus with more vaccines. In Austria, vaccination is mandatory starting February and Germany is expected to pass a similar law soon. France is putting a vaccine passport in place to enter bars, restaurants, theatres, and mainline trains. Politico reports that the UK and Germany are considering offering a fourth shot.  

But the World Health Organization has discouraged using such a strategy. “Blanket booster programmes are likely to prolong the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than ending it,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Wednesday.

He reasoned that until vaccination reached around the world, the virus would only have more opportunity to spread and mutate. “No country can boost its way out of the pandemic,” Tedros added.

Dr. Robert Malone, considered the father of mRNA vaccines, concurred. In an interview with the European Conservative in October, he said some studies have shown that mass vaccination, as a disease is spreading through a community, can lead to a virus morphing more quickly into strains out of reach of the vaccine. According to Tedros, without a ‘coordinated strategy,’ the world will ‘always be chasing’ COVID-19 variants.

But implementing mass vaccination in poorer countries has proven difficult. Reuters reported that in Nigeria an estimated one million vaccines expired last month and had to be thrown out. Its health systems didn’t have the capacity to administer the donated shots quickly enough, given the vaccine’s short shelf life, sources told Reuters. Nigeria’s vaccination rate is 4% and it is Africa’s most populous country.

In a more promising direction, Politico reports that some companies have begun to manufacture vaccines against the Omicron variant.

Also, according to the news outlet, the WHO is convinced the pandemic can be ended in 2022, given the vaccines available and the knowledge gained about the virus. Germany’s former health minister also predicted a relatively quick close to the pandemic. In November, Jens Spahn predicted that by spring German citizens would either be “cured, vaccinated, or dead.”

Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.

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