Omicron as natural vaccine? Why OCTA Research fellow’s comments on variant could be dangerous

January 6, 2022 - 2:30 PM
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NKTI patients
Patients, seated beside their guardians, are treated on wheelchairs amid shortage of beds at the makeshift extention of the COVID-19 Emergency Room of government hospital National Kidney and Transplant Institute in Quezon City, which has declared overcapacity following a surge of COVID-19 infections in Metro Manila, Philippines, April 26, 2021. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

The comments of an OCTA Research fellow about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 being a “natural vaccine” drew concerns from online Filipinos who perceived his remarks to be “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

‘A blessing’

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a Filipino-American priest and molecular biologist, said that the variant may be “the beginning of the end of the pandemic” that has crippled the global community for two years already.

During a GoNegosyo Town Hall Meeting on Wednesday, the OCTA Research fellow said that those infected with the particular variant of concern who will survive will have antibodies that will protect them “against Delta, Gamma, Beta, Alpha and D614G” variants.

“So as the virus rapidly increases, it’s going to try to spread to everyone and it’s going to try to find as many of our kababayans vulnerable. It is spreading so rapidly, what you will expect is it will run out the food sooner,” Austriaco was quoted as saying.

“And when it runs out of food, it will begin to crash — which is why you see in South Africa, the numbers are crashing. In London, the numbers are beginning to fall only because, once it spreads like wildfire, and when all the trees are burned, there’s nowhere for it to go. So it begins to crash,” he added.

“We have to realize that Omicron is the beginning of the end of the pandemic because Omicron is going to provide the kind of population immunity that should stabilize our societies and should allow us to reopen,” Austriaco further said.

He also called the Omicron variant a “blessing” but not after it becomes “hard for one month.”

“It will be hard for one month, but afterward, it should be a blessing because it should provide the population protection that we need everywhere,” he said.

Austriaco added that while Omicron will continue to cause a surge in COVID-19 cases, the public “should not be scared” of the numbers because it will be mostly “mild” cases and that there will be “fewer hospitalizations and deaths.”

The molecular biologist also reminded the public to be cautious, especially those who are unvaccinated against COVID-19.

‘It’s still COVID-19’

Austriaco’s comments earned some backlash from some Filipinos and members of the medical community who felt that it sounded “irresponsible,” especially coming from someone who is part of an independent research group.

Statistician Peter Cayton quoted some of the molecular biologist’s comments from another report and described it as “haphazard.”

“Someone does not care for our healthcare workers tired of surges. Irresponsible! Haphazard! Do not agree with these statements!” he tweeted.

“Omicron is the most contagious variant yet of the SARS-COV2 virus. Don’t let anyone win you over with the narrative that is a cure-all, end-all, ‘vaccine.’ It’s still COVID,” physician Leonard Pascual said in response to Austriaco’s comments.

“Why are we amplifying people talking about ‘natural vaccine’? The more people who get infected, the more the virus mutates, the more chances another variant of concern will emerge! What these people are proposing is a moving target!” data scientist Cherry Ronao likewise tweeted.

She also shared a tweet of an American virologist who said that the key to stopping a virus from mutating is to prevent it from replicating.

“To prevent new variants from emerging or prevent variants like B117 from further adaptation, take away the virus’ opportunity to replicate,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen wrote before.

“That means stop transmission to new hosts. Fewer new cases = less replication = less mutation = fewer variants emerging. So, as the article says, we need to reduce community transmission, increase surveillance and test/trace capacity, and address this while still rare,” she added.

Dr. Tony Leachon, former special adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19, also said that there are people who “have weaker immune systems and protection.”

“It will be difficult to gamble,” he said in response to the report which featured Austriaco’s comments about getting immunity from being infected by the virus.

“Even if it’s mild, people who get it will still have (to) isolate. They won’t be able to work. The effect may not be mortality or death, but the sheer volume can jeopardize and cause economic depression,” Leachon added, referring to the Omicron variant.

“Well, ‘mild’ symptoms in the vaccinated is a good thing, but as this unpredictable virus continues to infect more and more people (vaccinated or not) it will keep mutating,” he further said.

In an interview with ANC, Philippine General Hospital spokesperson Dr. Jonas Del Rosario likewise opposed Austriaco’s comments.

“I saw an article that said it is a gift of God, this Omicron. Basically like we should be thankful there’s an Omicron variant, which produces mild symptoms and will eventually give us herd immunity,” Del Rosario told ANC.

“If that is your thinking, and you’re not gonna be protecting yourself, your loved ones, a lot of people may end up dying because there will be people who will get the severe form of [the] disease, especially the unvaccinated,” Del Rosario added.

Physician Harold Henrison Chiu also said that while getting natural infection “may boost immune response,” the virus will have some “damage/effects on the different organs.”

“Some may even be long-term and yet to surface,” he added, referencing instances of long Covid.

A long Covid refers to individuals experiencing symptoms that continue for more than 12 weeks after infection. These can range from changes in taste or smell and fatigue to hallucinations or insomnia, among others.

Physician Paolo Medina, a former municipal health officer, likewise chided Austriaco for his comments about Omicron and said that it is a “reframing of something that is causing so much direct suffering for thousands, if not, tens of thousands.”

Another physician, who is also an associate professor from the University of Hong Kong, said that the virus, by simply infecting many more people, “may cause more severe disease and death even though the virus itself may be less pathogenic.”

“Therefore, taken together with our recent studies showing that the Omicron variant can partially escape immunity from vaccines and past infection, the overall threat from Omicron variant is likely to be very significant,” Dr. Michael Chan Chi-wai said in an interview.

He lead a study that found that the Omicron variant can be transmitted faster than the Delta variant in the human bronchus.

The World Health Organization‘s COVID-19 Technical Lead also cautioned people from suggesting that the Omicron variant is “just a mild” disease.

“Oversimplified narratives can be dangerous. While we see [a] lower risk of hospitalization compared to Delta, to suggest that Omicron is ‘just a mild’ disease is dangerous. Case are astounding even with lower risk, we will see hospitals overwhelmed. Please be careful,” infectious disease epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a report.