NEAR TERM, the emergence of Omicron is concerning because the sheer number of variations in the virus — notably the spike protein which the vaccines target — are very likely to render vaccines less effective in preventing the spread of the virus.
The Moderna CEO said as much in the Financial Times this week.
The transmissibility of Omicron is likely to be greater than previous variants, but it is still unclear to what extent.
Although the number of reported cases in South Africa has accelerated far faster than Delta, it’s unknown how long the variant was already seeded in the community or subject to super-spreading events.
The datasets are still too small to be more definitive.
We believe comments that Omicron may be less virulent — that it will lead to fewer hospitalisations — are premature.
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This view is based on observations in South Africa rather than data from a trial. It can be influenced by a variety of factors such as age and the number of previous infections a patient person has had.
Mitigating this uncertainty are a number of observations:
1. Thanks to South African scientists we’ve identified this variant at an earlier phase than Delta. This limits the level of seeding in other countries, containing the spread and buying time for a scientific response
2. While vaccines may no longer be as effective in stopping transmissibility, there is a reasonable expectation they will continue to be effective in lessening the effects of the virus through the response of B and T cells — which play an important role in our body’s Covid defence system
3. The advent of anti-viral medicines should reduce the health consequences of those infected
4. The impact of each subsequent wave has been less material on the economy as responses become more targeted and people become more attuned to the risks
5. We are seeing accelerating economic momentum globally. This is different to what we saw when the Delta wave began to emerge in May and June.
Corporate responses to date have been along similar lines: they will wait until we have more data and a better understanding before taking any potential responses to the new variant.
What if current vaccines prove to be ineffective against Omicron?
The mRNA suppliers say they have already been working on new versions of the vaccine.
They indicate it could take 100 days to develop an Omicron vaccine — and about six months to become available at a mass level, subject to regulatory approvals.
Crispin Murray is Pendal’s Head of Equities. He has more than 27 years of investment experience and leads one of the largest equities teams in Australia. Crispin’s Pendal Focus Australian Share Fund has beaten the benchmark in 12 years of its 16-year history (after fees), across a range of market conditions.
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