A Queen’s University professor has said the Omicron variant of coronavirus is leading to increased hospitalisations among young children.
He added that it is getting close to the point where Omicron should be treated like the flu given that symptoms are “less of a concern” but endorsed a cautious approach when lifting restrictions in case a new variant emerges that causes more damage.
Dr Ultan Power, professor of molecular virology at Queen’s University, said the data would be similar between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and people will be observing hospitalisations with severe disease.
Speaking on BBC’s The Nolan Show, Dr Power said that to date the data “looks good” because Omicron is not causing “anywhere near the same level of severe disease as we’ve seen with Delta and prior variants”.
“Much of that is probably down to the fact we have a wall of immunity built up now with the massive roll-out of the vaccines, particularly the booster campaign that went on has really made it very difficult for the virus to find susceptible people.
“And this is what we’re seeing in my lab, we’re doing a study on this right now. We’re seeing there is a clear boost in anti-bodies that are capable of neutralising the virus, Omicron, compared to people who haven’t got the booster for example,” he told the Nolan Show.
Omicron is by far the most common variant in Northern Ireland but, he advised, we should bear in mind when removing restrictions that data suggests Omicron is having “a slightly higher impact in terms of hospitalisations for children”.
Dr Power continued: “So again, we need to be a little bit conscious of this. Most children who are being hospitalised, they stay for two or three days and are then coming out of hospital for the vast majority of them.
“But we just need to be a little bit careful because this is a little bit different than what we’ve seen previously in terms of the frequency of hospitalisations with young children.”
He did clarify that the number of children being hospitalised remains low and they are the section of the population which is not vaccinated.
“I suspect that a decision on vaccinations might actually help the paediatric population substantially if there’s a decision to roll those out as rapidly as possible,” he told The Nolan Show.
Dr Power also pointed out that it is not just children with underlying conditions but a general increase.
Asked how long the booster lasts, he said, there are two elements to the immune response: one being the anti-bodies that neutralise the virus directly and the second are key cells which “kick in” soon after infection – they don’t stop infection but prevent severe disease.
He said that even with antibodies waning, key cells have been “holding up reasonably well” and that might explain why a high number of people get Omicron even though they are vaccinated but the vast majority of cases don’t lead to severe disease.
Addressing the need for booster jabs, Dr Power said childhood vaccines are administered in three doses, so it is not uncommon for “strong long-term immunity”.