While the science community researches the newly discovered Omicron variant of COVID-19, treatments will become even more necessary where breakthrough cases are detected and those who choose to be unvaccinated are infected. What we already know from the COVID-19 variants is that they are not going away leading to the reality that we will be living with this virus for a long, long time. A vaccine focused approach misses the fact that treatments are going to be needed as a backstop.
The facts surrounding the Omicron variant are emerging day-by-day. CNN reported on November 30, 2021, “there is still a lot we don’t know about the Omicron variant, but scientists are racing to determine its severity, transmissibility and whether it evades current vaccines.” The report indicates that 70 countries have imposed travel restrictions from hot zones in Africa and a growing number of countries outside of Africa are reporting cases. Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, worries that the new variant may have an impact on vaccine efficacy while Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, said that the company is working on an updated vaccine if one is needed. The bottom line is that vaccines have proven to be helpful, yet the COVID-19 pandemic must be fought with vaccines and therapeutics.
High-risk patients who are vaccinated and the unvaccinated need protection in the form of therapeutics to treat symptoms. The renewed calls for a “vaccination-or-bust” approach to global public health and has given fresh oxygen to the notion that wealthy countries continue to hoard vaccines at the expense of poorer nations, like the ones where Omicron has been detected. This thinking continues to ignore the reality that widespread vaccination is not sufficient for stopping the spread of COVID-19, including new variants.
Politicians around the globe need to engage in a robust conversation around the need for vaccine alternatives and treatments regardless of vaccination status and, importantly, equitable global access to those treatments. Just look at the country of Gibraltar with a 100 percent vaccination rate, meaning all eligible adults have been fully vaccinated, yet as recently as 10 days ago, new cases have spiked. In Singapore, 94 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated, nevertheless cases and deaths spiked to record levels in late October. And finally in Ireland, 92 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated, still COVID-19 cases and deaths have doubled since August. These are three nations that have a strong vaccination defense that proved to be not enough to protect their population.
There is much talk in the United States about boosters being needed to help get the vaccinated back to a status where they have strong immunity to COVID-19 like the weeks after they were first vaccinated. Boosters have already been approved for the general population and a newer Omicron booster is already in the works. A myopic focus on a vaccine-only approach ignores the latest science and leaves no room to discuss the need for a wide array of COVID-19 therapies. The existing vaccines have not contained the spread of the coronavirus in the most vaccinated nations.
Jared Whitley wrote at RealClearHealth on November 18, 2021, that there is an array of treatments, including “Rigel Pharmaceuticals’ Fostamatinib, originally approved by the FDA for the treatment of chronic immune Thrombocytopenia . . . ” This treatment is currently undergoing phase III trials as an immunoregulator for COVID-19, and it is able to throttle the body’s response to infection and reduce the need for oxygen and ventilation in hospitalized patients. Fostamatinib seems to have demonstrated high levels of effectiveness and safety when used on hospitalized patients, including minimizing patients’ time on oxygen and ventilators, and preventing patients from needing ventilators in hospitalized settings altogether. This will serve the equitable goal of global access to effective treatments for those who need them. With the examples of highly vaccinated Gibraltar, Singapore, and Ireland, treatments—like Fostamatinib—will ultimately prove more important than access to vaccines.
Even if every American were fully vaccinated and boosted, this virus would still be with us. Treatments may become even more important than vaccines if we continue to see variants that cause breakthrough cases. Politicians need to broaden their focus from a vaccine focused solution to one that considers therapeutics as one tool in the toolbox to fight a COVID-19 series of variants that will be with us for possibly decades.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared at RealClearHealth.