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Omicron and the Pandemic Sea Change – Health & BioPharma Update

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Omicron has been the most widespread and devastating wave yet of the pandemic, but the latest COVID-19 variant may also mark a sea change for the fight against the virus.

According to the latest numbers, Omicron has been more of a tsunami than a wave. In the United States, the seven-day average for cases is around 800,000; there are currently 140,000 hospitalized with COVID, and there are 1,900 deaths each day. In comparison, Canada’s seven-day case average is hovering around 30,000; there are currently 9,000 hospitalized and 120 deaths each day.

Joining a panel of experts to discuss the implications of Omicron on the North American economies and health systems, Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD, said that, while cases, hospitalizations and deaths have hit all-time highs since Omicron became the dominant variant, there’s still some hope in those numbers.

“This really speaks to the contagiousness and the infectiousness of the Omicron variant,” Dr. Whyte said of the near-vertical increase in cases. “There are still way too many new cases, and there are still way too many deaths, but proportionately, they're much lower than where we were during previous surges, especially with Delta,” said Dr. Whyte.

Wall of Immunity

A potential silver lining to this current wave is that vaccinations and natural immunity derived from infections could work together to build a “wall of immunity'' that, according to Dr. Whyte, would protect against future variants and lower the chance of new mutations developing.

Evan Seigerman, BioPharma Analyst at BMO Capital Markets, noted that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines still offer great protection against severe illness and hospitalizations, although with only 63 percent of the U.S. population and 77 percent of the Canadian population fully vaccinated, there is still considerable room for improvement.

However, there’s also a growing recognition that a vaccination-only strategy will not work going forward.

“At this point, we have to acknowledge we're not going to see the needle moving much on getting more people vaccinated,” Dr. Whyte said. “Many people simply aren't going to change their mind about vaccination, and vaccine mandates are losing steam.”

Mitigation and global access

As most high-income countries achieve a relatively high level of vaccination, Seigerman noted that there are still some developing countries with vaccination rates in the single digits, which means more risk of new variants emerging.

That’s what makes treatment and mitigation strategies so important in the immediate term. Whether it’s upgrading masks to N95 or KN95 to reduce transmission, increased testing, or improving ventilation, mitigation and prevention are critical, according to Dr. Whyte. This will allow for a larger discussion to take place around managing risk in school and workplace settings as COVID-19 numbers begin to decline and move toward endemic status in certain parts of both countries.

“Now is still the time to keep our foot on the gas and continue our mitigation strategies and continue our push towards therapeutics,” Dr. Whyte said.

Boosters and Pivoting to therapeutics

Seigerman noted that therapeutics – drugs taken early in a COVID-19 infection to reduce the severity of the disease - will be fundamental to finding our way through the rest of the pandemic. He pointed at early antibody therapies like Regeneron and Lilly that proved very effective against the Delta variant, but not so much with Omicron. The new Pfizer and Merck oral antivirals work against any variant, however, because they treat a different part of the virus than the spike protein, which is where the mutations occur between variants.

The need for vaccine booster shots in the future remains unclear.

“This is a fundamental discussion that we're going to have – we started having it at the original advisory committee that the FDA had on boosters. What are we doing? Are we trying to prevent asymptomatic infection? Are we trying to reduce all infections? We never had that discussion with the surge of Omicron,” Dr. Whyte said, noting that there's no real desire in the population to continue getting boosters.

With that said, the speed with which these therapeutics and vaccines were developed has shown the incredible innovation that can happen when biopharma companies have access to enough capital.

“I want to highlight the rise of mRNA technologies and just some of the development capabilities of biopharma and how this truly is the sector that saved the world,” Seigerman noted.

"When it comes to a company like Pfizer, they are generating a lot of cash," Seigerman noted. ''Now, they're able to invest in their business beyond COVID, which is important for the broader biopharma ecosystem … Biopharma is more than just COVID – it’s oncology, rare diseases, and so much more.”

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