Israel has no plan to stop the Omicron wave that has already swept across the country. But some health experts believe the “magic bullet” this time around will actually be widespread infection.
“The fifth wave might end when a large number of people will be infected,” said Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunology lab at Bar-Ilan University. “Only through natural exposure when protected with vaccines do I see this virus becoming endemic.”
The first and second waves ended when Israel locked down, stopping the spread of the virus but causing severe damage to the country’s economy and people’s mental and emotional health.
The third wave ended when Israel rolled out its stunning vaccination campaign.
And the fourth wave was stopped short by the booster shots.
There does not seem to be a magic bullet to save Israel from Omicron.
“Because Omicron is so contagious, our efforts to stop its spread are probably pretty futile,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “We are not going to stop this wave.
“What we can and should try to do is protect the most vulnerable as much as possible.”
Cohen said he is not recommending COVID parties or that people try to catch the virus. However, he said, “We have been trying to dodge the bullet for two years, and in Israel we have been successful to some extent. But most of humanity is still alive after contracting COVID.”
New research has started to surface showing that vaccinated people who catch the virus (i.e., breakthrough infections) develop “super” or “hybrid” immunity, meaning they produce very high levels of antibodies capable of neutralizing different strains of COVID-19 and other viruses.
They are also unlikely to develop severe disease. The Health Ministry reported on Tuesday that there are two people in severe and critical condition from Omicron in Israel. Neither have been vaccinated.
Research is starting to show that Omicron causes less severe infection in general, too. That means, out of the more than 80 people in the hospital with severe disease, only two have the variant to date.
In addition, a study published this week on MedRxiv found that people who get infected with Omicron are also protected against Delta.
“The large number of people infected with Omicron that is expected in Israel and around the world may significantly increase the level of immunity of the entire population and help eradicate Delta and at least some of the other variants,” tweeted Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, in response to the study.
Levine said if the study turns out to be correct, “maybe Omicron will mark an epidemiological transition to the endemic stage of the virus.”
How would mass infection stop COVID?
It is all about the reproduction number or “R.”
Let’s say influenza arrives in a community where people are not immune. One person gets sick and infects three people. Each of those people infects another three people and the virus spreads.
But next time around, when that same person catches the flu, his body fights it off quicker and this time he only infects one person. In the next round, the individual does not share the disease and for the most part, it stops spreading.
“The virus does not have enough hosts to proliferate inside the population,” Cohen explained. “It is almost herd immunity.”
Levine said Israel should stop thinking in waves and start thinking instead about strengthening the community’s immunity and resilience against the virus, by investing in public health measures and encouraging vaccination.
“We should avoid overall measures. We should not close schools. We should not lock down. We should not close the airports,” he stressed. “We should have proportional measures.”