Panicking about omicron

The new omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has got everyone alarmed – which is darkly ironic. This variant has reportedly racked up more mutations than previous variants of concern, including the delta, with virologists and epidemiologists from South Africa and the UK paying particular attention to real-world data that suggests it could be more transmissible and cause breakthrough infections and that some of the mutations in its RNA correspond to changes on the spike protein that could (speculatively) render the existing crop of WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines less efficacious.

Uncertainty about what a new strain of the virus can do, or even uncertainty more broadly, has always been sufficient reason for panic. Nonetheless, the rise of the omicron variant is significant and the response to it more instructive because of its predecessor.

The delta variant set a new benchmark for how quickly the novel coronavirus could spread, but its effectiveness also prompted some wonderment if the virus may be approaching ‘peak mutation’ – that is, if the delta might represent one of the most transmissible forms of the virus and if future outbreaks happening in a partly vaccinated world may not be so deadly.

The omicron is thus significant because it dispels this line of thinking, while demonstrating that as bad as the delta was for global society, things can get worse if we let them. Clearly we have. And the world’s panic is ironic because of the particular ways in which we have.

As far as COVID-19 vaccination coverage is concerned, there are two distinct groups of people: those who have been fully vaccinated and those who have been partly vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated at all. The corresponding split in India is qualitatively similar to the one worldwide, particularly in that it has come to be aligned almost perfectly with the class divide. This is the first point.

Second, most – if not all – of the current WHO-approved vaccines haven’t been tested for their ability to directly prevent or reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus (such as by reducing the amount of viral shedding). So there’s a not insubstantial possibility that even fully vaccinated individuals could get and transmit the virus, while enjoying the vaccine-granted privilege of not falling ill.

Third, we don’t know if the omicron variant can cause more severe disease, so let’s say that – at least to those of us who aren’t experts – right now the chance of it not being able to cause more severe disease is a reasonable 50%.

Taken together, the three points suggest that panic is understandable only among those who haven’t received one or both doses of their (two-dose) COVID-19 vaccines, and whose populations may have been ‘incubating’ the same or different variants by allowing them to persist for longer in their bodies, and replicate, in the absence of the vaccines (depending on each vaccine’s time-to-recovery). For these people, the chance of the omicron variant being able to last for longer in the body and cause more severe disease is already higher.

This is a crucial difference between the vaccinated and those who have been kept from getting vaccinated – a difference fostered by countries that hoarded vaccines, blocked attempts to ease patent protections and transfer technology and money – the same countries that are now blocking travel from parts of the world where their selfishness encouraged the rise of new variants.

On the other hand, panic verges on the offensive for fully vaccinated individuals – who are also likelier than not both in India and around the world to be able to access and afford good healthcare and antiviral drugs – to freak out about a viral variant that is currently only known to be able to be transmitted more effectively than the delta.

This shouldn’t bother us very much because most of us seemed to have stopped thinking about transmission even though the vaccines weren’t tested for preventing that, and went easier on masking up and washing hands just because we’d received our two doses, even as the delta variant continued to spread through the population. (Infections stopped surging but that’s not the way only way a virus can continue to circulate.)

It’s disingenuous to suggest now that the situation on the ground with omicron in play is somehow different (with the 50% disclaimer) even as we’re responding by blocking travel and trade instead of by increasing access to vaccines.

In fact, apart from whether any instance of panic could be pseudoscientific or offensive, there’s the question of whether it’s warranted. Among the fully vaccinated, it’s simply not. The rise of the omicron variant in a world of vaccine apartheid should in fact be a grim reminder that, again, we can’t afford to let things get worse, because they will. More people will fall ill, more people will die, more healthcare systems will collapse, more people ill with other diseases will be at greater risk of death or disability, and so forth.

If you’re fully vaccinated, mask up; if not, please go get vaccinated and still mask up. But if you can’t because vaccines are being withheld to your country – you may have reasonable cause for panic.