Istanbul, coronavirus pandemic

Omicron multiplies by 5 infections of coronavirus in Istanbul

Omicron shows that the global strategy against COVID-19 does not work, and that we will always have to live with the coronavirus.

Coronavirus infections have increased fivefold in Istanbul due to Omicron, the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus detected for the first time in South Africa and which is rapidly spreading throughout the world, forcing many countries to take again lockdown measures.

The information was disclosed on January 31 by the Turkish Minister of Health, Fahrettin Koca, in statements made to the Turkish newspaper Habertürk, explaining that in just one week the new cases of coronavirus in Istanbul have gone from about 4,000 to 20,500 a day, although he made clear that this trend is not being observed for now in other provinces of Turkey.

“Istanbul represents a fifth of the population of all Turkey. However, more than half of all cases (of COVID-19) are detected in Istanbul, with 52% of cases detected in the city. We can say that, literally, there has been an outbreak in Istanbul,” said Koca, who attributed this situation to the fact that the Turkish metropolis is a gateway between East and West and an important communications hub, but above all to the Omicron variant detected in December in South Africa.

The minister also underlined that if the Istanbul trend had taken place throughout Turkey, now the daily infections would be around 100,000; however, right now at national level an average of 30,000 new cases are detected daily. However, on December 30, a peak of 39,681 infections was reached in a single day, the highest figure since April.

“This is not a joke. Omicron can infect people very easily”

“This is not a joke. The number of infections in Istanbul has multiplied by 5 in 10 days, by 3.5 in a week. Ankara has seen its cases doubled, with a daily average of infections that was 1,200 last week, and now it is 2,200,” warned the minister, for whom the only relief in this situation is that for now, the increase in infections does not it is translating into more hospitalisations or ICU admissions. However, he asked risk groups and those over 60 to exercise extreme caution.

“Deaths among vaccinated people are much lower. Vaccines are still our best asset (against the virus),” insisted the Health Minister of Turkey, a country that has recently started mass-producing its own coronavirus vaccine. Koca also re-emphasised the increasing importance of taking personal precautions, such as the use of a mask, cleaning hands, interpersonal distance, and avoiding crowded, closed, or poorly ventilated places.

In other statements made this weekend to the Turkish daily Sabah, the minister warned that in just a few weeks the Omicron variant could become the dominant one in Turkey, as is already happening in other countries. Currently, 1 in 4 new infections in Turkey is already with Omicron: “This is a variant that spreads very quickly, and that can infect people very easily,” Koca acknowledged.

“It would not be surprising if 1 in 3 new cases is from Omicron within 7 to 10 days,” added the minister, expressing concern about this new variant. In fact, according to Koca, Omicron could make the current rule of maintaining 2 metres of social distance insufficient. “This new strain can infect you even if you are at a great distance, especially in closed places,” said the minister.

Experts alert: “COVID will always be with us”

Several experts cited by international media have also expressed their concern about this new variant, which they consider as a proof that the fight against the pandemic is, in fact, failing in its strategic approach at a global level. This is what believes Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health (USA), who considers this new strain a warning of what will happen “unless we really take this seriously”.

“Certainly, COVID will always be with us,” says Ko. “We will never be able to eradicate or eliminate COVID… so we have to set our goals (with the virus),” insists this expert. A similar opinion is held by the renowned Dr. Amesh Adalja, academic specialist in infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: “We are not going to go back to a point where it is 2019 again (as before the pandemic)… We have made people consider risk tolerance”, he explains.

For his part, another expert in contagious diseases, Stephen Kissler, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is also in favour of the theory that the virus will continue to coexist with us, and maintains that “we will reach a point where the SARS-CoV-2 virus is endemic, just as the flu is endemic.” The difference is that the influenza kills between 12,000 and 52,000 people a year in the United States; on the contrary, COVID-19 has killed 800,000 Americans in the last two years.

The fact is that although vaccination has been a great advance, this is only a reality in the richest countries, while in the least developed it is believed that it would take at least two years to vaccinate the entire population, and that with the doses adapted to current variants; as long as the entire world population is not immunised, the virus will take advantage to create new strains and mutations that, at any moment, and in a totally interconnected world but with a very unequal population in terms of access to vaccines and hygiene measures, is for sure that will eventually outperform existing vaccines.

So, the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus is multiplying infections in large cities such as Istanbul and in many countries, once again putting the health systems of even the most advanced nations at stake, and forcing to consider again restrictions that were suposed to be something from the past. The vaccine, and personal protection measures, are still the best response to COVID-19… but it is very likely that humans will have to get used to live with a virus that seems to have come to stay.