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Facing the enemy: How’s the war on COVID going for us?

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JUST AS WE thought it was safe to get back into the water … here comes that monster COVID again, this time in the shape of BA.5 Omicron or its siblings.

Omicron and its variants, while not statistically as deadly as their predecessors, have the distressing ability to attack lots of people beyond the unvaccinated and vulnerable. They’re threatening to overwhelm first responder and hospital capacity. They can strike behind human defences of multiple vaccination, or protection of recent covid illness in some cases.

I know, it happened to us at the end of a recent family reunion overseas — despite having had a second booster shot well in time. I’ve had four covid vaccinations to date. Entering the metaphorical pathogen-infested waters by flying on small planes unmasked, like all the other holiday-makers we met, was probably our undoing. Or maybe it was the hotel elevator … anyway there were a lot of people from a lot of different places within breathing distance of us.

Risks remain to both the individual and society from a renewed wave of short or long covid. The scary potential of succumbing to long-covid is only recently coming into focus in the national conversation.

We haven’t won the war

The war zone or monster movie metaphors that our societies use to describe the human battle against the viral pathogens of SARS-CoV-2 are now working against us notes Ed Yong, ace medical reporter for US-based The Atlantic magazine.

We haven’t won a war to regain our ‘freedom’ and ‘normal’ life. Instead, ‘living with COVID’ framed as a defeated foe has encouraged many of us to hear a ‘don’t worry’ dog whistle to ditch the masks and the social distancing. I did.

But in store is a cat-and-mouse game between the virus and our immune systems. As we guard against some known Covid variants with immune system antibodies, reinforcements come onto the field for the virus.    

Antibodies don’t necessarily recognize the reinforcements. Writes Yong:

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Source: Centre Disease Control media library

“When people are vaccinated or infected, they develop antibodies that can neutralize the coronavirus by sticking to its spike proteins (pictured here) — the studs on its surface that the pathogen uses to recognize and infect our cells. But BA.4 and BA.5 have several mutations that change the shape of their spikes, which, like swords that no longer fit their sheaths, are now unrecognizable to many antibodies that would have disarmed older variants.

“That’s whyas many studies have now consistently shown, antibodies from triple-vaccinated people, or people who had breakthrough infections with earlier variants, are three to four times less potent at neutralizing BA.4 or BA.5 than BA.1 or BA.2. This means that most people are now less protected against infection than they were two months ago — and that some people who got COVID very recently are getting reinfected now.” 

At play here is also the high infection rate of the first Omicron wave last year. A much higher percentage of the population have now either been infected or are guarded by vaccines. “Most people” are the new baseline for looking at how the ‘battle’ is progressing.

Barring new narrow-targeted vaccines which will take some time to develop, what is the situation using the vaccines to hand? “Based on how other countries have fared against BA.5, vaccines are still keeping a lot of people out of hospitals, intensive-care units, and morgues. The new variant is not an apocalyptic menace,” writes Yong.

“But it can’t be ignored, either. Infections (and reinfections) still matter, and by increasing both, BA.5 is extending and deepening the pandemic’s ongoing burden.

Reducing the spread of the virus is key

We will not prevent all transmission — that is not the goal — but we have to reduce the spread,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the World Health Organization, told Yong. “It’s not over, and we are playing with fire by letting this virus circulate at such intense levels.”

That means self-preservation by deciding to use masks and social distancing in tight situations, whether or not governments open their eyes, take a deep breath and prescribe these precautions again.

Writing in The Conversation in early July, political reporter Michelle Grattan calls for a minimum of clear messaging from the country’s leaders and notes that masks have been a political football in Australia throughout, and they shouldn’t be.

“Masks are currently a frontline topic in the debate about how we deal with the new COVID wave that is seeing an average of 45 deaths a day, taking deaths this year alone north of 8,000.

“Masks have been a political and ideological football throughout the pandemic…

“Given current public opinion, the mandating of mask-wearing will stay limited. But in view of their place in the anti-COVID tool box, it would be helpful if politicians remembered to lead the way when appropriate.

“We have reached a hinge point in the pandemic, and the weeks ahead present a huge challenge for political leaders. The community has moved on from COVID. But COVID has not moved on from the community. It has dug in.

“A mind reset is needed. But that’s hampered by many in the public and in the political class being unwilling to accept that we haven’t “pushed through” to “live with COVID” in a safe sort of way. To the extent we are “living with COVID” we are accepting a crisis in the hospital system and a level of deaths that, if it had occurred in 2021, would have generated a massive reaction.

So where are we?

What this all means is this: Time to face reality of a new covid wave and the likelihood of a protracted battle. Australians need to have available and use high-quality masks, RATs and support to isolate.

MAIN IMAGE: Adobe Stock

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