Just when the event world was regaining a small semblance of normalcy, news of the Omicron variant took the media by storm. With many businesses- especially small ones- still making up for pandemic-related losses, this news was potentially devastating. The fear was compounded when the first global event, the WTO Geneva Conference, was postponed due to Omicron. Meanwhile, the Delta variant is still overwhelming European hospitals, with Germany especially affected by high numbers. The U.S. has added county-by-county travel regulations to the uniform vaccine requirements implemented on November 8th. To complicate matters further, early reports have shown the Omicron variant to be 500 times more transmissible than the Delta variant. While the Delta variant shows 18 mutations of the coronavirus, the Omicron shows 32 mutations so far. In South Africa, the Omicron variant now accounts for 76 percent of cases.
Trusting The Science
Why does the amount of mutations a virus has matter? Well, mutations are found on the spike protein of the virus. This protein is what attaches to human cells and allows the person to become infected. Therefore, the more mutations a virus has, the more potential the virus has to enter cells. Experts have long expressed concern that regions with low vaccination rates could lead to the development of more new, possibly more antibody-resistant strains. Also, some of the mutations already associated with Omicron are linked to higher infectivity in other viruses.
That’s the bad news. But there may be a silver lining: For reasons unknown, most breakthrough cases of th Omicron variant seem to be mild. Encouragingly, early reports show that Omicron infections cause appreciably milder symptoms than infections with the Delta variant. However, it’s also been noted that positive cases in the Tshwane region of Gauteng Province have increased from less than 1 percent to more than 30 percent in the last three weeks alone.
The bottom line? There is cause for concern, but we don’t really know if the Omicron variant that the strain is much more transmissible than the Delta variant.
How Well Will Vaccines Work Against It?
One prevailing question people have involves how well vaccines will fight against the Omicron variant. Scientists know that the immune system recognizes a virus by its spike protein. It stands to reason that the more a virus changes, the more challenging it becomes for the immune system to identify the invader and formulate the necessary response to combat it. Since vaccine-based immunity is reliant on antibodies, there’s a concern that the new variant could potentially reinfect past carriers and make vaccines less effective.
Another silver lining: Antibodies were recently taken from people who were first naturally infected, then fully vaccinated. These antibodies were still able to neutralize a synthetic Omicron-type virus in the laboratory. According to Ian Sanne, an infectious disease specialist at University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, “we have every reason to believe that the vaccines are still effective in preventing severe disease or complications”. She cautions that research is still in the early stages.
Vaccine effectiveness continues to be the strongest avenue of hope in recovery from the pandemic. The vaccine continues to provide protection against Delta despite the 18 mutations on its spike protein. That’s encouraging news.
And there may be another hope on the horizon: The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently working with technical partners to understand how well the current vaccines work against the new strain. According to evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, experts expect to have a better sense of how necessary it will be to develop a variant vaccine.
Generally speaking, mRNA-based vaccines can be modified in a short period of time. Those form BioTech and Moderna fit under that category. However, vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are considered adenovirus viral vector vaccines. These vaccines use a modified version of the virus- which is different from the virus, which is why it’s called a vector- to stimulate antibody production.
Takeaway For the Event Industry
Now that we’ve discussed the facts in as much detail as we have access to, take a deep breath. The key thing to remember is that we really don’t have enough information to know how the Omicron variant is going to affect the industry worldwide. However, with the vaccines already available and the potential development of new ones, it’s reasonable to hope that the industry’s progress will continue its slow uphill climb.
How is the industry coping? Well, a lot of meeting planners are taking preemptive measures. For a long time, mandating proof of vaccination at events was an abstract, controversial idea. At most, it seemed like an impending reality that inspired conflict and division as it loomed closer. But with the emergence of several new variants, fully-vaccinated events are a reality. The development of tools like the Clear Health app have made it possible to track vaccination status. Large-scale events such as IMEX America, HTLH 2021, CES 2022 and more have decided not to allow attendees the option of providing a negative COVID-19 test.
Some people have questioned the reason for disallowing a negative COVID-19 test for entry. After all, if you don’t have COVID-19, you can’t spread it, right? That’s true, but testing negative for COVID-19 in the days- or even hours- prior to an event doesn’t eliminate your chances of being exposed to the virus after the test. For this reason, many events- especially large scale ones- are no longer open to those who aren’t fully vaccinated. The working logic behind this being vaccinated makes people less likely to be carriers of the virus. Vaccination has also been proven to lessen the severity of illness in many breakthrough cases. So if you’re afraid to take a risk where the new variant is concerned, it’s not feasible to mandate vaccination- and thus greatly reduce your chances of holding super spreader events.
It’s also important to remember that venues and business owners are much more knowledgeable and prepared to prevent transmission than they were when COVID-19 was new on the scene. Now that we know more about how the virus is spread, many venues have sanitization and health protocols in place. There is also a greater understanding of how to use social distancing to reduce the risk of transmission.
Also on the plus side, Pfizer and Merck are currently developing new drugs for the treatment of COVID-19. While these are pending FDA approval, they are expected to be effective at keeping patients out of the hospital. Furthermore, they are slated to be much less expensive than the monoclonal treatments that are currently the only outpatient treatment available.
So while there are a lot of unknown, the world of medicine is much more poised to deal with potential threats as they emerge than they were at the start of the pandemic. And believe it or not, the event industry is also much more equipped to handle COVID-19-related challenges than it was even a year ago. As the virus continues to evolve, so does the science involved in slowing the spread. Our verdict: There’s no reason to panic just yet, and many reasons to believe that the industry will continue its uphill climb toward recovery.