Warning over ‘dangerous assumption’ in Omicron spread: 'SHOCKED'

·Assistant News Editor
·3-min read

A leading epidemiologist says she is "shocked" by advice from Australian regulators to not bring forward booster shots for Covid-19 as immunity in the community wanes. 

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws is an advisor to the World Health Organisation and after attending two meetings with experts from around the world this past week, she calculates that just 30-35 per cent of Australians have symptomatic protection from Omicron. 

One of the talks focused on the change in neutralising antibodies from Delta to the Omicron strain. 

"It is very clear – they're all on the same page – your neutralising antibodies wane very fast" when it comes to defending against Omicron, she told Yahoo News Australia.

Healthcare workers administer Covid-19 tests at Bondi as cases rise.
Healthcare workers administer Covid-19 tests at Bondi in Sydney last week. Source: AAP

"After four months [following a second Covid vaccine dose], you don't really have enough neutralising antibodies to provide yourself with protection." 

"Omicron seems to either get around the immune response, or is taking advantage of a waning antibody level," she said.  

Prof McLaws says "there is no good reason" Australia shouldn't follow the UK in administering booster shots after three months, rather than the current five.

The governing body ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) recently decided not to recommend the interval between second dose and booster shots be shortened – a decision which "shocked" Prof McLaws. 

"I don’t know how much of that advice is driven by science and how much is driven by politics," she said. 

Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws pictured.
Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws says she is "shocked" by the current ATAGI advice. Source: AAP

"I’m really hoping the authorities realise if they want to have the economy strong and people out spending, then we need to have booster shots no later than four months, but preferably three."

She's not alone in her thinking. Epidemiologist Adrian Esterman agrees that boosters should be brought forward, fearing the gap at five months will result in "thousands of people infected for no reason".

The 'dangerous assumption' about Omicron spread

According to Prof McLaws, one presentation at the recent WHO meetings she attended drove home the reality that Omicron has been spreading more easily in overseas countries. 

"At this meeting, the English presented the fact that Omicron was three times more likely to cause household transmission compared to Delta and twice as likely to cause non-household transmission," she told Yahoo. 

Early reports out of South Africa when Omicron was first detected suggested the strain could result in a more mild form of disease. But ABC Health commentator Dr Norman Swan says allowing it to spread on such grounds is a "dangerous assumption" because Delta is still prevalent in the Australian community, and the notion that Omicron is more mild is not borne out by the data at this point. 

"This is not necessarily a milder virus," Dr Swan told Radio National this morning. 

New research this week from The Imperial College London, which has not yet been peer reviewed, has not supported the thesis that Omicron produces a more mild disease. 

As Australians enjoy the Christmas and the New Year period, Dr Swan urged people to take Covid-safe precautions despite the NSW state government rescinding measures such as the mask mandate. 

"Through the history of pandemics, politics has had an important influence on the course of pandemics," he said.

Last year that worked well as federal and state governments introduced counter measures against the virus, "but politics now could actually get in the way," he warned.

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