Will Omicron Produce Super Immunity?
A Gallup poll concerning American’s opinion of the COVID-19 pandemic was conducted from January 3rd through the 14th of this year. The results show that 20% of respondents feel that, even with the Omicron variant, the situation is improving; 22% feel it is staying the same; and 58% believe it is getting worse. One-half are worried about contacting COVID-19 — up 12 points since November 2021. As a result, social distancing behaviors are on the rise, and a large majority say they continue to wear masks in public.
The poll found that the hope for an end to the pandemic expressed last spring when vaccines were rolled out was dashed by the Delta variant. In May 2021, as more and more people got vaccinated, it was widely assumed the situation would improve — but that opinion has changed. Most now believe the situation has been made worse with the introduction and swift spread of Omicron.
As noted, 50% of respondents are now concerned about the possibility of becoming infected. This worry has increased by double digits across all age groups. These concerns have led many respondents to avoid large crowds and public places, and there has been a diminution in the use of public transportation of all types. The survey confirmed that the use of masks by the general public, while somewhat diminished, is still approximately 70% — down from 92% in July of last year. Respondents also expressed concern with the finding the Omicron variant can still infect those who have been completely vaccinated.
This last topic was recently addressed in The Wall Street Journal. The hypothesis of the piece was that Omicron would accomplish what vaccines have not: so-called super immunity. This idea is supported by the fact that individuals who have been infected by one of the strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus develop an antibody response far exceeding that produced by current vaccines. Both T and B cells develop this response; T cells have a double function, (1) to attack infected cells, and (2) activate B cells, which serve as force multipliers that proliferate and secrete antibodies to neutralize the virus.
Memory B cells remain in place after the active infection, and, if similar viruses attack, these cells can rapidly reproduce. This results in an even more potent antibody response than seen at first exposure — namely, super immunity. This is relevant because it is now evident that while vaccines initially produce high numbers of antibodies, these tend to decline relatively rapidly after introduction of the vaccine.
If this hypothesis is correct, it appears that Omicron is doing us a favor by introducing a relatively mild form of the disease that ultimately produces long-lasting antibody protection. Given the high rate of Omicron infection and rapidity with which it spreads, we should soon have the answer.
Thomas G. Wilson Jr., DDS
Editor in Chief
From Decisions in Dentistry. March 2022;8(3)4.