Don't Worry - Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Quote

Overcoming Omicron, Photo Credit: Calligraphy of the quote “Don’t Worry”, “لا تشلون هم” by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces. Abu Dhabi Culture

Overcoming Omicron in the UAE

As news about the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 infection broke in early December 2021, the global community heaved a weary sigh. After months of calm, things were finally beginning to get back to the “new normal”. With the spread of Omicron, it seemed that we were heading for more travel restrictions, lockdowns, and curfews, even while vaccination drives are ramped up and hospitals brace themselves for the new wave.

 

Even though the knee jerk reaction involved countries in the Middle East and North Africa imposing travel bans on their neighbours, the WHO warned against blanket bans, anticipating that they won’t really help in containing the spread, and instead lead to a heavy economic price for countries who are just finding their bearings after the last wave.

The Rising Wave: Taking a Look at the Fallout

In the weeks that followed, however, a distinct pattern began to emerge as Omicron swept across the UAE, leading to massive spikes in COVID-19 cases. Experts have suggested that Omicron spreads three times faster than the Delta variant and is at least four times as contagious as the original version of the virus. The World Health Organization reported a record 15 million new COVID-19 cases for the week of Jan. 3-9, a 55% increase from the previous week.

 

While the UAE acknowledged the sudden spike in cases, reports seem to indicate that the infection was only causing mild effects in the people affected.

 

“In light of the surge in infection rates in the country compared to previous weeks and months, we stress that the health and medical situation in all the country’s hospitals is stable. More than 55% of hospital and intensive care beds are empty, and the COVID-19 bed occupancy rate is below 3%.” Health Spokesperson Noura Al Ghaithi, in December 2021.

Vaccines to the Rescue! But did they fall short of their aim?

Research suggests that the most widely used COVID-19 vaccines in the world provided little or no immunity against the new wave of infections due to the spread of the Omicron variant. While one can’t deny that the inactivated vaccines served their purpose in preventing hospitalization and death and have value in the role, they play in providing at least a baseline immunity to completely unvaccinated people, these inactivated doses may not hold up to new variants.

 

Omicron is more likely than Delta to reinfect people who already went through an infection with COVID-19 as well as cause ‘breakthrough infections’ in vaccinated people while at the same time, attacking the unvaccinated, who seem to be the most vulnerable.

 

Studies from different parts of the world, done to find out if the vaccines work against the omicron strain, show varying results. While patients in Hong Kong and India had low levels of antibodies, studies done in China using the Sinopharm vaccine showed adequate antibodies. This is why more research is needed.

 

 
Notably, the UAE is the first country in the Arab world to develop a COVID-19 vaccine with a full production schedule. Hayat-Vax is a joint venture between Sinopharm CNBG and Abu Dhabi’s G42. Along with the country’s official contract tracing app, Al Hosn, the UAE seems ready to take on further challenges as new variants emerge.

 

Industry Insights: How has the new Omicron variant affected the healthcare marketplace in the UAE?

  1. With the passing of the Delta wave, the global health tourism industry is expected to reach USD 207.9 billion by 2027, expanding at a significantly high CAGR of 21.1%. According to the latest Medical Tourism Index Ranking, Dubai and Abu Dhabi were ranked among the top 10 in terms of leading global destinations for medical tourism, respectively. The relatively mild symptoms of the Omicron infection allowed for the industry to continue with elective procedures.

  2. The previous COVID-19 waves made the way for a digital boom in healthcare, which made the industry ready to take on Omicron. New models of care are expected to be in use. for example, a focus on digitalization and remote monitoring, telehealth as well as other technologies to integrate government initiatives with private organizations and leverage Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in healthcare systems. At the same time, telepathology and teleradiology had their moments in the spotlight through efficient diagnosis that overcame the challenges of reduced skilled workforce and social distancing mandates. The push towards preventive care has resulted in the astronomical rise of SaaS or Software as a service in healthcare, using digital health applications. These med-tech unicorns will transform how we gather and utilize patient data, especially when dealing with ominous new variants like Omicron.

  3. Dependency of robust medical supply chains that evolved to include digitization and automation, while simultaneously becoming more dependent on locally derived resources whenever possible. This is possible because of tough lessons learnt during the previous waves where companies had to pivot hard to survive. As we prepare to deal with Omicron, the proposed integration of robotics, IoT, sensor-based software, drones, big data, blockchain technology, and predictive analytics can make all the difference.

Can we predict the nature of future variants?

As new variants emerge it is clear that we may not be out of the woods just yet. Experts may not know what the next variant or infection would look like.

 

According to Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University,

“The faster Omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants”.

 

As we call for faster vaccination rates, amongst discussions of vaccine inequality in economically weaker nations, we must brace our healthcare systems to deal with new waves in the future. While we can remain hopeful that the relatively mild infection with Omicron, meant that the virus was on its way to becoming “just another flu”, it may be too early to throw caution to the wind. A virus is bound to mutate and there is no guarantee that it will get less deadly over time. So, as they say- Keep Calm and Mask Up!