The news about South African scientists detecting a new variant of the covid-19 virus that has been labeled the ‘Omicron’ has been worrying to say the least. What has caused scientists and the WHO to express concern is the large number of mutations that it has, over 50 overall and more than 30 on the spike proteins that the virus uses to invade out bodies’ cells. That makes it hard to predict what it can and will do without further study. But it is far too early to press the panic button.
There have been many examples of variants that have seemed scary on paper, but came to nothing. The Beta variant was at the top of people’s concerns at the beginning of the year because it was the best at escaping the immune system. But in the end it was the faster-spreading Delta that took over the world.
Prof Ravi Gupta, from the University of Cambridge, said: “Beta was all immune escape and nothing else, Delta had infectivity and modest immune escape, this potentially has both to high degrees.”
All this means is that the variant needs to be studied more closely and jumping to worst-case scenarios is not helpful. There are four things that scientists will be studying:
1. How does the transmissibility of Omicron compare with the existing dominant variants like Delta?
2. Does Omicron cause more serious symptoms?
3. How effective are the existing vaccines and treatments against it?
4. If existing vaccines are seen as ineffective, how quickly can new vaccines be created to deal with it?
As to the first, the fact that it seems to have spread fairly widely in the region in which it was first identified suggest that its transmissibility rate is fairly high. As to the second, the cases reported so far have been seen as mild. As to the third, that will take some laboratory research to determine. And as to the fourth, apparently the new mRNA techniques are such that they can be adapted to cope with new mutations but of course it will take time to mass produce and distribute the new vaccines if that becomes necessary.
Because the new mutation was first identified in Botswana and made known by South African scientists, some countries have clamped down on travel from those two countries and neighboring ones like Namibia and Eswatini. But when one deals with exponentially growing systems, these kinds of travel restrictions at best only buy you a very little time, days at most. The best precautions are still the same ones we have been told over and over again: get vaccinated, avoid crowds and unvaccinated people, wash one’s hands frequently, and wear masks.
Once a variant is detected in any area, it usually means that it has been around for a while and will likely spread everywhere. The Omicron variant has already been found in many parts of the world and there is a good possibility that it is already in the US. Countries should be encouraged to report new variants as quickly as possible and shutting down travel from countries that first report them gives the impression that they are being penalized for revealing the existence of the variants, rather than being commended for sharing the information. South African scientists are working hard to learn more about the new variant.
“We’re flying at warp speed,” says Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, whose lab is gauging the variant’s potential to dodge immunity from vaccines and previous infections.
“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this variant,” Richard Lessells, an infectious-diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, said at a press briefing organized by South Africa’s health department on 25 November. “The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic.”
Unlike scientists who try to provide a balanced and measured perspective, there are people who for whatever malevolent reason, seem to delight in spreading panic and they waste no time in using any new development to spread false information. Just two days after the first reports of the new variant emerged, I got a text message forwarded via WhatsApp from a friend that had a “Oh my God! We’re all going to die from the Omicron variant!” tone. It claimed to be from “a doctors’ group from RSA (Republic of South Africa)”. I could immediately tell that it was unreliable. The panicked tone, the large number of exclamation points, and the lack of identification of the ‘doctors’ group’, were all dead giveaways. It took me just a minute to find a debunking of the message and I sent it back to the sender along with a gentle suggestion that she check things out first before mass forwarding.
It frustrates me that despite all the publicity given to the false information that exists on social media, people still forward this stuff without checking. The people who want to spread panic take advantage of the fear and gullibility of people and of their good nature and desire to alert people of dangers, and social media is their mode of choice. They know that getting something from someone you know tends to give it greater credibility and unless one adopts judicious skepticism, one can easily become part of a disinformation campaign.