“It’s likely that the region is heading for some sort of pandemic endgame,” said Kluge, who estimates that by March, omicron will have infected 60 percent of Europeans.
“The damage to health due to vaccination, boosting and infections with the current omicron variant is now no more than with a strong flu wave. We could therefore let go of the measures,” says health economist Xander Koolman (VU).
Costs and benefits
Once the current omikron-dominated wave in Europe subsides, a months-long period of widespread immunity and therefore few new infections may follow, Kluge of the WHO thinks. As it gets colder towards the end of the year, Covid-19 will return, but not as a pandemic. Kluge bases the latter on the relatively mild nature of the omikron variant, which has been shown to generally make people less ill than the delta variant. He does, however, take a hit. “This virus has surprised us more than once, so we have to be very careful.”
In the case of an epidemic, the costs and benefits are examined from a health-economic perspective: what is the damage to health – how many people die from it – and what is the cost of measures to prevent infections. “If we go back to this logic, then you can drop the measures. Compared to other viruses, the current measures are no longer appropriate,” says Koolman of the VU.
He agrees with his colleague Professor Christopher Murray, who wrote in the medical journal The Lancet states that the predominant omicron variant, although much more contagious, is less seriously ill and also causes fewer deaths.
Of course there is still uncertainty, for example around lung Covid, says Koolman. “A new and more serious variant may emerge. Against all this uncertainty is the certainty that the current measures cause great damage to companies, young people and many others.”
Fewer people now end up in the intensive care unit of hospitals and more patients in the nursing wards or with general practitioners where people now know better how to treat and with which medication. “For example, the proportion of Covid-19 patients in hospital requiring intubation or dying has fallen by as much as 80-90% in Canada and South Africa,” Murray said in The Lancet.
Murray foresees a severe test of the healthcare system in the coming period because there will be an enormous number of infections worldwide. But Murray also calculates that the measures such as mouth-nose masks, the vaccination and the boosters will ultimately have only a limited impact because of the high contagiousness.
“In fact, he says that eventually everyone will be infected with this variant and I also think that it can no longer be stopped,” says virologist Bert Niesters of UMC Groningen. “I am positive. Omicron has changed the ‘rules of the game’; we don’t get that sick anymore, the IC doesn’t get in trouble anymore. I expect it to take about two months to pass through the entire population. Only now we are having problems with the increasing absenteeism because there are many infections. If you stick to the applicable (quarantine) measures, society will be disrupted; public transport can no longer do rides, compartments are not filled and the catering industry will also suffer from it.”
If you look at the end of this wave, how many people are and are not infected, then measures actually no longer matter, can be read in The Lancet. Koolman: “That’s right; the damage is manageable. Thanks to the new properties of Omikron and the current level of protection against serious disease, we have now entered a world where we would normally no longer intervene with measures. These have hardly any effect on the total number of infections and that is what politicians should also consider when determining policy. Not only to fully adopt the advice of the OMT; that team looks from a medical-biological perspective. It is time for politics to make clear how all interests and values are weighed, such as freedom and the ability to provide for one’s own bread.”
Virologist Niesters already predicted in 2020 that the pandemic would last at least two years, with a new wave in hospitals. These waves would get smaller and smaller. “And in the end, the Covid-19 virus – also called SARS-CoV-2 – will be the fifth coronavirus to stay with us. We can add it to the well-known list of common cold viruses. “To date, there are four human coronaviruses that we see as ‘common’ cold viruses. It concerns OC43, 299E, NL63 and HKU1.”
Annual corona vaccine
Pharmaceutical Pfizer announced on Friday that it was not in favor of continuing to boost every few months, but of an annual corona vaccination for risk groups, as is also the case with the flu. This is because there are many breakthrough infections despite the boosters.
Niesters: “That’s because those boosters protect against the very first Wuhan variant; after ten weeks, this booster is already much less effective at omicron! Perhaps in the first two years we will indeed vaccinate the high-risk groups against Covid-19. But I don’t foresee that in the future. It is a cold virus and we do not vaccinate against the other four known viruses, do we? Perhaps it is possible to develop a universal anti-coronavirus vaccine that also protects against the already known four.”