Read the letter a virologist sent his family on how to best protect themselves from the Omicron variant

Read the letter a virologist sent his family on how to best protect themselves from the Omicron variant
Peter Vanham (left) and his father Guido Vanham.Courtesy of Peter Vanham
  • Guido Vanham is a Belgian virologist who's been sending letters to his children during the pandemic.
  • The text of his most recent letter is printed below with permission from his son Peter Vanham.

Dear Peter, Johan, and Nele,

Dear grandchildren,

Your mom and I are so very much looking forward to celebrating the holidays with you — and especially with the newest member of our family! We're so glad you're all safe and that Valeria had a good pregnancy and got herself protected by taking a vaccine (and soon a booster) early.

We know you're worried also for the kids, who are facing a difficult situation in school. They now have to wear masks and are asked to get vaccinated even when they run a lower risk of getting sick themselves. You told me how even some of your friends reacted extremely to that news.

But I've read all the studies about it and it's very safe for the boys and children their age (5- to 12-year-olds) to get vaccinated. They also won't have much, if any, troubles from wearing a mask.


They might even like wearing a mask if you frame it right. They get to do what adults are doing and do their part in helping people from getting sick. My experience is that if you put a positive spin on it and ask them for their opinion, they're often more willing to be "courageous" than you might think.

As for our newly born granddaughter who's barely a month old: You're already through the most critical phase as Valeria got vaccinated during her pregnancy and with that protected herself and the baby. Even now as she breastfeeds, she passes on antibodies that help the baby protect herself.

Sadly, the Omicron "variant" of the COVID-19 virus is spreading all over the world now. And I know that you're wondering: What should we expect? Is this going to be the first wave all over again or will we be better off?

My assessment is: This may be the most contagious variant yet, with a possible tsunami of infections and sadly little effect of the vaccines on that front. We therefore are better safe than sorry and should do everything we can to protect ourselves and those around us.

Here's what I think you should know:


First, this Omicron "variant" is a new form of the COVID-19 virus, which causes a new wave of infections because it's somehow more potent than the previous variant. Omicron is both more contagious than previous variants (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta) and also escapes from the "immunity" the antibodies induced from the previous variants.

Omicron can infect people who have already been infected with previous variants and even those who were vaccinated several months ago. Moreover, Omicron is equally "pathogenic" as previous variants — i.e., it can cause serious disease leading to hospitalization, intense care, or even death.

As you know, our healthcare systems are currently still over-burdened by COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive-care wards. I hear that's the case for our local hospital and also for the one in Geneva. As a result, seriously ill people without COVID-19 but with cancer or other life-threatening conditions often have to wait for treatment.

That delay of necessary care for non-COVID-19 patients also causes unnecessary fear, suffering, and premature death. The "Delta wave" is now receding, but the "Omicron wave" is already unfolding with the overload of hospitals with COVID-19 patients and delays for non-COVID-19 care. You may have heard Dr. Anthony Fauci is predicting the same in the US.

(I have known of Dr. Fauci since I was researching HIV in the 1980s. He's an incredible scientist with a résumé in infectious diseases that's equal to none. When he speaks, we should all listen.)


So what can we do together to avoid or certainly reduce the Omicron wave?

Omicron remains sensitive to the vaccine, but less than Delta. That's why you need a third dose of the vaccine to help protect you from serious illness and hospitalization.

Unfortunately, even three doses don't protect against the infection itself. If you've been vaccinated three times and still become infected, you'll often hardly notice it: You may have a "common cold," a sore throat, and sometimes a fever. So I know you're all lining up for your boosters and you're doing the right thing.

Sometimes you don't feel anything at all and yet the virus is in your body for a few days and can be transmitted to other people. If you then infect someone who hasn't been vaccinated or who is vaccinated but is weakened, that person can become seriously ill with COVID-19. Not only very frail or old people are sensitive, but also middle-aged people with obesity, high blood pressure, chronic bronchitis, and diabetes, and even some apparently perfectly healthy youngsters or even children.

A third shot of the vaccine is therefore important to protect yourself against disease. But even if you get a third shot, you can still transmit the Omicron virus and possibly make someone else ill. That's why we should all stick to the measures below because we know they greatly reduce the spread of each variant of the virus:

  1. Keep your distance and wear a face mask correctly when you're indoors with people who don't belong to your core family: at school, in the office, in a shop, on the public transport, in the town hall, and so on.
  2. Constantly ventilate rooms where you're together with many people with fresh air. You can do so by opening a window at home or by installing an air purifier (they're sold online and in many shops).
  3. Wash your hands regularly.
  4. Definitely don't cough or sneeze in front of others, and make sure to keep your mask on when you speak. Sneezing, coughing, or speaking loudly to someone are the three most likely ways in which virus particles can spread and infect others.

If any of you have had close contact with an infected person, the rules of testing and quarantine (isolating yourself for one to two weeks) absolutely apply. That's also the case if any of the kids or your partners are infected. I know you'll have a lot of social contacts, so please be careful and follow those best practices.

As we will soon see each other for the holidays, it's not always possible to strictly follow all these rules. For example, if we're going to eat and drink together, you can't always wear your face mask and socially distance if you're in a small room.

Then it's really recommended that all people who plan to come together (including the children) do a self-test beforehand to make sure that no one would unknowingly become infected with the virus and spread it. This is very important if there are people who are old or weak — then everyone should certainly be tested.

(Your mom and I don't consider ourselves old and weak, but we're now in our late sixties and early seventies, so we have to be careful, too, and we'll get tested tomorrow ahead of the Christmas get-together.)

It's all annoying, but we live in a period when a dangerous virus is among us. It will remain that way all winter.


What then is the prospect?

  1. The major vaccine companies are already working on a new vaccine specifically against Omicron. It could be ready as early as March and distributed shortly afterwards.
  2. We can be confident that the situation in the summer of 2022 will improve, just like in 2020 and 2021. That means we have something positive to look forward to in the near future.
  3. Because more and more people have been vaccinated and/or infected, the herd immunity (the resistance of all people through their antibodies) increases.
  4. The virus can't endlessly create new strong variants, so it will eventually weaken and behave more like the flu virus.

This pandemic will pass, just like the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago, but no one can predict when. I hope with all of you that this is our last COVID-19 winter, but I'm only a doctor and a scientist — and a father and grandfather — not a prophet …

Take care, and let's hope we can still get together for the holidays, albeit extremely carefully,


Guido Vanham, medical doctor and specialist in virology and immunology