On 19 December 2021, the Sri Lanka Foundation Medical based in the US conducted a webinar featuring a panel of medical professionals on the conversation of what we need to know about the Omicron variant.
The webinar featured a line-up of outstanding Sri Lankan medical professionals from around the globe, including Western University Clinical Professor, and infectious disease specialist affiliated with Emanate Health and San Dimas Hospital Community Hospital Prof. Deepthi Jayasekara; University of Miami School of Medicine and University of Miami Hospital Infectious Disease Specialist Prof. Dushyantha Jayaweera; Institute of Immunity and Transplantation and Health Services Laboratories, London and Nawaloka Hospital Research and Education Foundation Consultant in Clinical Immunology and Allergy Prof. Suranjith Seneviratne; Canberra Hospital Director and infectious diseases physician, Australian National University Medical School Lecturer, and University of New South Wales School of Public Health and Community Medicine Conjoint Lecturer Prof. Sanjaya Senanayake; and joining in from Sri Lanka University of Sri Jayewardenepura Department of Microbiology Researcher, and Allergy Immunology and Cell Biology Unit Researcher Prof. Neelika Malavige.
Transmissibility of Omicron
Speaking on the topic of “Omicron variant and how Sri Lanka is preparing for a surge”, Prof. Malavige, who is also a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, shared that the primary concern here is the new variant’s transmissibility.
“In terms of variants, it is the survival of the fittest. Delta was predominant for the longest time; Omicron is more transmittable and therefore it is wiping out Delta,” she said.
She stated that the concern here is the higher tendency to cause “re-infection”, adding: “The risk of Omicron is 3-5% due to its ability to re-infect, even those who are fully vaccinated.” She noted that it infects and multiplies 70 times faster than the Delta variant, providing that “Omicron infection in the lung was significantly less than Delta while infection in the bronchus was 70 times more than the Delta”.
The takeaway here is that while it may be less lethal, it will spread faster, and therefore it is infinitely more dangerous. She said that if we are to consider severity, although cases are rising, the deaths and admissions have not risen accordingly. “A virus that is more transmissible kills more rather than less, and is a more lethal one,” she said, adding that a fast but mild virus ends up killing more, and therefore it is so incredibly important to be prepared.
Prof. Malavige said that genomic sequencing of the virus in Sri Lanka shows that the majority is in the Western Province, which is the epicentre for most of the outbreaks. She added that as things stand now, “we will have to accept that a certain degree of community transmission is expected, and the new variant will pick up and things are not going to be any different from other countries here”.
What are we doing to prepare?
Prof. Malavige stated that as of now in the island, we are maximising vaccinations, getting the elderly to all get the booster shot. She said that so far we are 64% fully vaccinated, with 74% having got the first shot and 7.7% of the population having received the booster dose. She stated that Sri Lanka ordered the booster for every single adult Sri Lankan, and the only issue has been some of the scepticism surrounding the Pfizer booster, but they are attempting to speed things up.
Additionally, she said that what we must all do is follow through with wearing facemasks both indoors and outdoors, only leaving out our own homes.
She did state that there is one advantage that Sri Lanka will have over the western countries during this time, and that is that it is winter in most of those countries and therefore they are not able to ventilate their spaces. “Sri Lanka’s advantage over most western countries is our climate. Because we have ventilation. We can gather outdoors; we can have our windows and doors open,” she explained.
In conclusion, Prof. Malavige stated: “You don’t want to test Omicron out; you don’t want to test out exactly how lethal it will be for you.” Therefore, it is advisable that we as a population follow through with these guidelines for as long as we must.