Manuel Carmo Gomes in an earlier conversation with RTP news

“Maybe we should just let people become infected naturally”: epidemiologist opens possibility of ‘light’ at end of Covid tunnel

Epidemiologist and member of Portugal’s Vaccine Technical Commission Manuel Carmo Gomes has opened the door to a different approach to Covid-19, now that the Omicron variant has been (almost) universally recognised as ‘milder than Delta’ and not leading to mass hospital admissions.

Talking to Lusa today, he said: “If it really is less serious than Delta in highly vaccinated populations, like ours, then perhaps it makes sense to leave people to become immunised naturally.

“I have never advocated theories of group immunity through natural infection, but we are in a completely different situation, with the population practically fully-vaccinated and a variant that, for now, doesn’t look very worrying in terms of hospitalisations”.

Playing it safe, he said authorities still “need a few more days” to analyse data coming out of the UK and Denmark – where the dissemination of Omicron is more advanced.

And he warned that the country could “rapidly” see “tens of thousands of new cases”, which are already exhausting public health responses (see earlier story on main menu).

Indeed, the number of new cases recorded today has skyrocketed to 17,172.

It is the highest number ‘ever recorded in a 24-hour period’, SIC television news  reported this evening.

Hospital admissions are up slightly too (to 936), while 19 deaths have been recorded since the last DGS Covid bulletin.

Health minister Marta Temido has confirmed that case numbers will rise even further over the next few days – not simply because of Omicron’s heightened transmissibility, but due to the crushing numbers of people who have been queuing sometimes in driving rain to undergo Covid testing.

Just yesterday, 235,000 tests were performed (at testing centres and pharmacies). This number does not include the self-tests that people may have been taking at home (for access to restaurants, etc.)

But for once, no-one is sounding the habitual alarm bells. 

SIC’s news anchor Rodrigo Guedes de Carvalho actually said as he introduced this evening’s Jornal da Noite that developments are “not going to lead to a great increase in concern”.

This because the upshot of the massive curve in new cases is not, for now, reflecting in a run on hospitals: ambulances are not careering this way and that answering panicked calls for assistance; nor are they stacked up outside casualty units waiting for seriously sick patients to be admitted.

As Carmo Gomes explains, the way things are however there is no possibility of responding to every single person who tests positive for Covid-19 any more: there is no time, means or manpower to do ‘follow-up’ inquiries or even vigilance. As long as data holds steady on Omicron (showing it to be the mild version of Covid that authorities in South Africa have been describing since the mutation’s detection), “maybe it makes sense to let people immunise naturally than involve our whole public health system and primary care facilities”.

But it is still “too soon”, he stressed, to say this IS the strategy.

“It is still an endemic epidemic illness because it generates very abnormal large increases, as we are seeing”, he explained.

“I would say the virus not established its dynamic. It still has a lot of ‘fuel’ to consume. It will take some time before we can understand what kind of endemism we are going to have…”

As to further ‘restrictions’ coming when the government next analyses data on January 5, Carmo Gomes gave hope. If it is confirmed that the impact of Omicron is “not very worrying, I don’t see that it (the government) would sacrifice the economy, primary healthcare or public health”, he said.

“If signs become more worrying in terms of serious illness that Omicron could provoke, then things would change”.

But if they don’t “natural immunisation is preferable” than running after a fifth, sixth or seventh dose”.

That last phrase is telling in that prime minister António Costa has pretty much opened the door to a 4th dose coming in the spring (click here).

The whole concept of natural immunity has been aired in the past, and has been confirmed as giving people “much more robust” protection against SARS-CoV-2 than any dose of the current vaccines (click here).

And Manuel Carmo Gomes’ thoughts follow those, very similar, of virologist Pedro Simas who said almost two weeks ago that it is “absolutely normal” that variants that cause the most problems disappear, and others “that are more in balance with the human being take their place” (click here).

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