Covid: should Omicron be let spread free to put an end to the epidemic sooner?

Published by Cécile D. · Photos by My B. · Published on 15 January 2022 at 14h58
By letting the Omicron variant spread, one could reach enough herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic in France. Is this strategy recommended by experts?

The threshold of 300,000 new Covid-19 daily cases is regularly reached and even exceeded in France. The situation in Europe is not really more encouraging: according to the WHO’s predictions, 50% of Europeans will be contaminated by Omicron within the two to three months. This extremely contagious variant yet has not urged the French government to take very restrictive measures, unlike its European neighbors.

No lockdown, no curfew, no school closed: a freedom that seemed suspicious to many observers. On the set of France Info this Wednesday January 12, Olivier Véran stood for the decisions of his government: “We are not trying to let this variant spread. […] Now, it is such contagious that it is spreading”.

Is letting the Omicron variant spread a conceivable option? According to France Télévisions, some scientists consider that by letting the variant contaminate as many French as possible, it could help reach herd immunity sooner, pushing the pandemic to end. The fact Omicron causes less severe disease than its predecessors also works in this theory’s favor.

Epidemiologist and head of the National Medicine Academy’s Covid Unit Yves Buisson explains: “Omicron improves protection against the virus, makes it stronger and more long-lasting. It causes a protection of mucous membranes at the level of airways, nose, throat, mouth. Vaccines stimulate antibodies, but the virus has enough time to multiply itself in the upper airways. If the mucous membranes are protected, it is far better”.

EMA’s vaccine strategy head Marco Cavaleri also spoke in favor of letting the virus run free. “With the increase of immunity in population – and with Omicron, there will be a lot of natural immunity taking place on top of vaccination – we will be fast moving towards a scenario that will be closer to endemicity”, the expert argues.

And yet, the scenario does not convince everyone. Although Omicron seems less dangerous than the previous forms of Covid-19, it is still a virus impossible to control, that makes a lot of victims every day. “We are not safe from a good surprise, but this is not a common virus like a cold yet. Let us not draw conclusions too hastily. Omicron has not been there for two months. We don’t know much about its consequences on the average run. It invites to the greatest care and prudence before letting it run free. We cannot bet on things like this”, Public health and epidemiology professor at the Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University Mahmoud Zureik told France Info.

Yves Buisson admits this hypothesis is like “playing with fire”. Although Omicron kills less, it still sends plenty of people at the hospital: the ICU bed occupancy exceeds 50% everywhere. In some regions such as Corsica and Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur, it covers 100%. Letting the virus run free is like suspending the sword of Damocles above the head of hospitals in the country. Vulnerable people would be far more exposed to the virus, increasing contamination and death risks.

Risks are therefore too big to follow the lead raised by these experts. Caution is still the watchword as long as over 90% of the population is not vaccinated. “If the entire population were vaccinated then contaminated by Omicron, we could consider exiting the crisis”. In the meantime, “we need to keep complying with health guidelines. We cannot prevent Omicron from spreading, but we shall not make it easier”, Yves Buisson concludes.

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