The Omicron variant

21 December 2021
While the μ-variant of Covid-19 seemed to come and go without much fan-fare, the Omicron variant has caused a real flap, perhaps in part because the name recalls the 1980s Transformers villan-planet Unicron. As time of writing Denmark, Ireland, and the Netherlands are all back to varying shades of lockdown, so a lot of people in important places are pretty worried. So far I am starting to think that the views I developed when Delta came out are fundamentally still valid, and that is the risk of Covid-19 to me personally is less than the side-effects of trying to avoid it.

Travel restrictions

More often than not travel restrictions have been last-moment knee-jerk announcements that inevitably cause a mad rush of people trying to get to where they need to go, and I have no doubt that some of these rushes in themselves have been super-spreader events. The medical profession believe that at best travel bans buy a little time but the amount of time bought is not worth the Pyrrhic price it imposes on those at the receiving end. The UK's red-listing of Africa was abandoned after little over a fortnight and things like France's travel ban quite likely will have no measurable effect. It is thought that the prevalence of Omicron is increasing significantly faster than most countries can actually track it, with the UK and the Neverlands only being ahead of the curve due to their Covid sequencing capacities. Admittedly I am a little biased because to put it bluntly travel restrictions were instrumental in destroying my personal relationship last year.

Danger from infection

Unverified reports are of the first UK death from the Omicron variant being an unvaccinated person in their 70s, but this demographic were such high-risk even before the variants came along not much can be inferred about the severity of the newest strain. Anecdotal evidence from South Africa was of milder symptoms but this in itself could be down to the much younger age profile in those countries; however a pre-print paper from Hong Kong points towards Omicron tending to infect the Bronchia rather than the deep lung tissue, which is speculated may cause bronchitis rather than the more serious pneumonia. So far a lot of people in hospital with Omicron were actually admitted for other reasons and they were only found to be Covid-positive as the result of routine testing.

It might be wishful thinking to call out Omicon as being less severe but I have yet to hear of any evidence that individual infections are worse. For the population as a whole just Omicron's ability to reach more of the vulnerable in itself makes it more dangerous in aggregate, but for the healthy vaccinated individual the important thing is whether infection is significantly more likely to land them in hospital. If yes then it is the real prospect of being back to 2020 but otherwise little has fundamentally been changed by this latest variant.

The unvaccinated are screwed

While the severity of Omicron is unclear what is clear is how rampantly infectious it is even to those who have already had multiple vaccination jabs, but with the Delta and Mu variants the purpose of vaccination had already shifted from preventing infection to preventing hospitalisation. Noteworthy about the UK's first Omicron victim is them being de-facto isolating even though it is unclear whether this was in response to Covid-19 itself or an unrelated asocial attitude. Either way this reinforces my personal view that exposure to Covid-19 is a matter of when rather than if — I know unvaccinated people who have decided to opt for a life of isolation but I don't see how this approach is now sustainable.

Previously hidden risks

The sheer number of jabbings has caused extremely rare but statistically significant complications with vaccination to get noticed, and these are things not specific to the Covid-19 vaccines themselves. For instance I have suspected the blood-clotting issues with AstraZenica and to a lesser extent J&J may be associated with the adenovirus technology itself rather than the vaccines specifically, although more recently I have had reason to doubt this suspicion. One rare but significant thing that I came across recently was the reports of serious side-effects if the vaccine is injected incorrectly — IV (intra-vascular) rather than IM (intra-muscular), and it was detected by comparing countries that routinely pull back on the syringe plunger to make sure that a blood vessel has not been punctured versus those that simply push it all the way in immediately. In short the rare side-effects were 2–3 times more common.

I don't know how common accidental IV injection is but I do wonder if it has happened to myself since one of my four injections was noticably painful unlike the other three. However since the mechanism by which the AstraZenica blood clotting side-effects are thought to happen includes leakage into the bloodstream, one has to consider whether the absence of this practice is a factor in the circa-70 people killed by such complications. I remember reading in passing something about the need for the procedure — known as aspiration — but this pandemic has shown how many unspotted or ignored risks can blow up.

My next actions

I decided to spend this week in semi-isolation and spend the Christmas weekend with family but next week I am going to let rip — going out as much as possible and while paying attention to some rules such as mask wearing on public transport, fundamentally disregarding the risks of catching Omicron because I am going to sooner or later anyway. Being on the verge of rebuilding my personal & social life and with four doses of vaccination I am not letting Covid-19 hold me back. For me now by far the most significant risk from Covid-19 is other peoples' reaction to it.