Will the new omicron variant be the end of COVID-19? Should the government be more accepting of natural immunity? And how long are the COVID-19 vaccines efficacious?

The Daily Citizen spoke with and posed all of these questions to Dr. Daniel Hinthorn, a board-certified physician and specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Dr. Hinthorn is also a member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council.

The Omicron Variant

Over the past two months, the United States has seen a shift in the variant of COVID-19 that is most prevalent. We’ve moved from the Delta variant, which was widely prevalent in 2021, to the Omicron variant.

Dr. Hinthorn told us that most new cases occurring now are the Omicron variant, with the Delta variant making up the rest.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Omicron is now estimated to make up around 95% of all new COVID-19 cases.

Coinciding with this shift in viral mutations, the U.S. has seen an explosion in new cases of COVID-19.

In New York City, the current surge in cases has far surpassed anything the city has seen so far during the pandemic, including the early surge in March and April 2020.

New York COVID Cases

Photo Credit: The New York Times

At the same time, the city has experienced a much smaller increase in deaths.

New York City’s 7-day average of daily deaths with COVID-19 reached a high of 829 on April 12, 2020. Despite the current and unprecedented surge in cases, the 7-day average of daily deaths in the city is at 88 as of January 12, 2022.

A similar scenario, where cases explode but deaths remain low, is playing out across the nation – and the world.

“In terms of less severe disease, we think [the Omicron variant] causes a more mild illness in most people,” Dr. Hinthorn told us.

He also noted that one’s risk of having severe illness is also largely dependent on age, weight, comorbidities, and vaccine status.

Backing up Dr. Hinthorn’s analysis, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday that the Omicron variant is associated “with a 91% reduction in risk of death compared to the Delta variant,” according to a new study.

Additionally, Omicron is associated “with a 74% reduction in risk of going to the ICU, as well as a 53% reduction in risk of being hospitalized,” Director Walensky noted.

Director Walensky also recently acknowledged on ABC News’ “Good Morning America” that for fully vaccinated Americans who die of COVID-19, “over 75% … had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who are unwell to begin with.”

Natural Immunity

Natural immunity refers to someone who has already been infected with the virus, and therefore has some level of protection against reinfection. One Israeli study found that those who are fully vaccinated had a “13.06-fold … increased risk for breakthrough infection with the Delta variant compared to those previously infected.” In other words, this study found that natural immunity was more protective than vaccination in terms of the Delta variant.

However, that study was conducted prior to the rise of the Omicron variant.

We asked Dr. Hinthorn whether the natural immunity gained through an infection with Delta would cross over to provide protection against Omicron.

“It depends, but usually there is protection of some sort,” he answered.

Additionally, Dr. Hinthorn cited a new Chinese study that found, “If you had the disease, and then you get the vaccine, you have the best protection, period. In fact, they showed that you are protected from all the known variants so far,” Dr. Hinthorn said.

Vaccine Efficacy

Recently, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla acknowledged in an interview with Yahoo Finance that being “fully vaccinated” offers little protection against being infected by the Omicron variant.

“We know that the two doses of the vaccine offers very limited protection, if any,” Bourla said. “The three doses, with the booster, they offer reasonable protection against hospitalization and deaths … and less protection against infection.”

Asked if that lines up with his analysis, Dr. Hinthorn concurred. “Yeah, it does,” he said. “The third shot does tend to protect. I think the Pfizer tends to protect for two, three, four months. And then I think the Moderna shot protects for a little bit longer.”

Dr. Hinthorn also acknowledge that part of the reason for the waning efficacy of the vaccines is due to the virus’ mutations, which the vaccines are less protective against.

Herd Immunity

So, will the Omicron variant be the end of COVID-19?

“It could be,” Dr. Hinthorn told us. “I think it will decrease. And I think we’ll probably come to a place where we’ll have a yearly surge of COVID-19 of some sort, and whether it’ll be the Omicron or some other variant I don’t know.”

“But yes, if it’s to wind down, this would be the mechanism that you would expect it to wind down. So many people have it, that we’re above 90% in some places in terms of antibody protection, and therefore it should decrease.”

For pandemic-weary Americans, that is heartening news.

Related resources:

COVID-19 Vaccines: What You Need to Know

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