Professor Neil Ferguson’s team forecast thousands of deaths a day from the latest variant but new evidence suggests it may be far milderProf Lockdown’s ‘apocalyptic’ omicron claims undermine faith in vaccines and have fuelled unnecessary shutdowns
The Covid modellers at Imperial College have begun to back down. About time too. Over the past few weeks, they have made extreme claims about the omicron variant that cannot be fully justified by fundamental science, let alone by clinical observation.
Academic etiquette restrains direct criticism, but immunologists say privately that Professor Neil Ferguson and his team breached a cardinal rule by inferring rates of hospitalisation, severe disease, and death from waning antibodies, and by extrapolating from infections that break through the first line of vaccine defence.
The rest are entitled to question whether they can legitimately do this. And we may certainly question whether they should be putting out terrifying claims of up to 5,000 deaths a day based on antibody counts.
“It is bad science and I think they’re being irresponsible. They have a duty to reflect the true risks but this is just headline grabbing,” said Dr Clive Dix, former chairman of the UK Vaccine Task Force.
Needless to say, these headlines have spread as fast as omicron itself. Britain is the Covid laboratory of the developed world, and what Imperial says right now has global resonance. Its dire warnings are contributing to some European countries imposing full or partial Christmas lockdowns.
Governments are so alarmed by the possibility that healthcare systems might collapse under pressure that they have neglected the opposite risk – and much more probable outcome – that omicron will largely bounce off a population where almost everybody has cell immunity from vaccines or past infection, and in the case of Britain where most vulnerable people have been triple jabbed for good measure.
“To talk of 5,000 deaths a day is a very high number. It is risky to push apocalyptic scenarios that are highly unlikely to happen,” said Professor Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute.
“What I am more worried about is a loss of trust in governments and public institutions for crying wolf. The mood is changing everywhere.”
Prof Balloux, who used to work with the Imperial team, said he understood why they had focused on neutralising antibodies: they are easy to measure and tell you how well the front-line fighters are doing against infection. But this has led to great confusion.
The second line of defence, what really matters for serious illness, comes from B and T cell memory – either from jabs or prior illness. This carries on long after antibodies are no longer circulating in the blood. Cell memory is much harder to measure but is known to last much longer.
“Cellular memory is still there for omicron and remains intact,” Balloux said.
The first studies from around the world have begun validating the potency of cell memory against omicron, more or less as theoretical science would predict.
A team at the University of Cape Town found that double-jabbed patients still had 70pc of the CD4 T cell response against the new variant, and full CD8 protection, despite the mutations.
“T cells are holding out against omicron, and the data is very consistent across vaccines,” they told the US magazine Science. “From everything we know about T cells, this is what they do – control a virus once you’ve been infected. So this is their time to shine.”
You would not know this from the series of claims in the past few weeks by Prof Ferguson and his team that omicron “largely evades immunity”, even if they are technically within their rights to use this construction.
Imperial might struggle to substantiate their initial warning that a 4.5 fold reduction in neutralising antibodies will lead to a “drop in vaccine efficacy against severe disease (hospitalisation)”.
They certainly cannot quantify hospital figures or project extreme death rates without taking into account the full effects of cell memory, which they fail to do.
Their assertion that vaccine efficacy for double-jabbers ranges from zero to 20pc was misleading. Nor can they legitimately assert that there is “no evidence of omicron having lower severity than Delta” since their sample was vanishingly small, the timeline was too short, and they did not know the denominator of actual omicron infections since so many asymptomatic cases passed undetected. The clinical pattern worldwide suggests otherwise. That is “evidence”.
Their hospitalisation assumptions have already been undermined by better data from Danish hospitals. The emerging ratios are a small fraction of the Imperial claims.
“B and T cell protection is holding up well but they did not have an immunology group working with them. They are just modellers who plug in what they are told on vaccine efficacy (ie antibody counts) and come with this data,” said Dix.
He wrote a robust critique of some of the claims, as did Professor James Naismith from Oxford University, though in gentler language.
There is an interesting twist to this. The AstraZeneca adenovirus vaccine scores well on cell memory and may ultimately protect better than messenger RNA jabs such as Pfizer-BioNTech, now that we are relying more on this second line of defence. He believes the UK should have stuck with AstraZeneca for mix-and-match boosters.
Dix said the political class in the UK – and more broadly in Europe – does not understand the difference between front-line antibodies and lasting cell memory, and is therefore succumbing to unnecessary alarmism.
He assumes that Professor Chris Whitty and his close colleagues do understand but went along with Imperial’s claims as a tool of public policy, hoping to cajole more people into getting booster jabs. Anthony Fauci in the US is apparently thinking along the same lines. But it is a double-edged strategy. It risks a loss of faith in vaccines altogether.
Dix said it is inexplicable that the NHS is not publishing daily data giving the exact percentage of those in hospital with omicron by vaccine status, comorbidities, and whether they were admitted for Covid or for another reason. They should publish the numbers needing oxygen, and those going onto critical care, as other countries do.
“It is not that difficult to put together the data. It would make a huge difference to public confidence,” he said.
The global picture emerging from lab studies is not only that cell memory works like a charm, but that omicron may be inherently less dangerous than delta.
Research by the Cambridge virologist Ravi Gupta found that the omicron spike protein cleaves far less efficiently than earlier variants, and replicates most in the upper respiratory tract rather than in the lungs where it does most damage.
“I think the evidence is mounting that the virus potentially causes less progression to severe disease,” he said.
It confirms earlier work from Hong Kong University and is extremely encouraging. “If you have to pick between bronchitis and pneumonia, I can tell you, take bronchitis any day,” said Balloux.
Balloux said the sketchy clinical evidence from South Africa, Denmark, Australia, and London is that the case fatality rate of omicron for populations with broad immunity is 25 to 30 times lower than the earlier pre-vaccinated waves.
There is a 90pc drop in hospitalisation rates, and a further two-thirds drop in death rates after admission. This takes it down to the levels of seasonal flu.
He said data from Australia is the most “elegant” yet, showing two simultaneous outbreaks of Covid in a well-vaccinated population, one delta, the other omicron. The hospitalisation rate of omicron is roughly half.
In London, omicron has already blown through the residual pockets of vaccine refuseniks but has not led to comparable parabolic mayhem amongst the rest of the well-jabbed population.
“It has already peaked in Gauteng (South Africa) and in all likelihood it will peak in London very soon. I am now quite confident that omicron won’t be as bad as they say,” said Balloux.https://cf-particle-html.eip.telegraph.co.uk/c7007312-dc34-4fd6-ae67-25dff83c9623.html?i=1&ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.telegraph.co.uk%2Fbusiness%2F2021%2F12%2F23%2Fprof-lockdowns-apocalyptic-omicron-claims-undermine-faith-vaccines%2F&channel=business&id=c7007312-dc34-4fd6-ae67-25dff83c9623&isapp=false&isregistered=true&issubscribed=true&truncated=false<=false
Global markets are sniffing this out and are learning to ignore the political noise. The equity rout earlier this week has already given way to a pre-Christmas relief rally. Airline and other “reopening” stocks are soaring again.
The high probability is that omicron will disappoint the alarmists and frustrate those of a hairshirt Puritan character who almost seem to want lockdowns as a form of self-flagellation.
The rest of us can get on with our lives and leave the antibody modellers to build castles in the air.