About a week ago, the head of the South African Medical Association, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, announced that she had recently seen a young man at her clinic who tested positive for what, on close examination, turned out to be a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Briefly called by the World Health Organization a “variant of concern,” it has now received the ominous name “Omicron,” the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet
Within a day of the variant’s official announcement at a press conference on Nov. 25, all flights originating from South Africa and its neighbors were abruptly canceled. The reaction was particularly strong in Western Europe, where the authorities were chasing out the last traces of the Delta surge with massive vaccination campaigns. Suddenly, governments found themselves reconsidering the need for new lockdowns, mobility restrictions, and mask mandates.
The country that promptly and responsibly reported seeing it within its territory now faces crippling isolation. The truth-teller is being punished for the message it brings.
Yet, up to this time, hardly anything is known about the possible dangers this variant actually poses. No one has shown that it is actually more transmissible than existing variants like Delta, or that it causes more severe disease. Significantly, none of the initial cases seen and identified as due to Omicron had symptoms severe enough to warrant hospitalization. More importantly, no one knows at this point whether the Omicron variant, with its multiple mutations, is capable of eluding the protection conferred by the vaccines or by natural immunity.
In fact, it cannot even be shown that South Africa is its actual point of origin. Genome sequencing of different cases shows that the Omicron variant must have been circulating for some time before it was tagged by South Africa’s scientists. Ironically, as Dr. Coetzee laments, “[B]y announcing its presence in my own patient, I unwittingly brought it to global attention.”
Since then, the rest of the world has reacted as though the African continent has spewed out a new deadly pathogen that threatens to bring humanity back to where it was at the beginning of 2020. Lacking China’s global clout, South Africa is bound to suffer far more from the economic consequences of this unjust sequestration than from the pandemic itself.
Such global reaction only encourages governments to follow what China’s local Communist Party officials tried to do when they suppressed early reports of an atypical pneumonia afflicting new admissions into Wuhan’s hospitals in late December 2019. It took three crucial weeks before the central government, recognizing the gravity of the situation, officially acknowledged the existence of the novel coronavirus later named “SARS-CoV-2.”
To be fair, once Beijing understood what the outbreak in Wuhan meant, it avoided doing what party leaders had done during the SARS epidemic of November 2002—which was to conceal from the public and from the world what was happening while they frantically tried to contain the spread of the disease. Overcome by fear of what this public health crisis might mean for its economic plans, the Chinese leadership then was far less forthcoming than it is today.
As soon as China acknowledged the presence of a viral outbreak within its shores, it offered the world’s scientists a complete genome sequence of the new virus, thus shortening the time needed to create the tests for detecting it. It also enforced the strictest and broadest lockdowns that have ever been mounted by any government, thus offering a model of disease containment that many countries still find disproportional to the problem.
Today, with more than 5.2 million deaths worldwide from COVID-19, it is not easy to say exactly how many lives were spared from the disease by the off-and-on lockdowns and mandatory restrictions on everyday life. But one thing is sure: These responses have destroyed whole economies, buried nations in debt, caused untold learning impoverishment among young students, produced more mental illness than at any other time, and, by exacerbating existing medical conditions, killed more people than COVID-19 itself.
Explosion of effects is what this phenomenon is called, a situation so complex that one is unable to easily tell the effects of the pandemic itself from those triggered by the responses to it. We have to learn to live with plagues if only to make sure that our solutions do not end up being deadlier than the disease. This means we must continue to know how best to manage them by understanding what specific dangers they signify.
This question is certainly not as simple as it may seem. For the same virus that causes only mild symptoms in young people may severely affect the elderly and those with chronic health conditions. What is worrying scientists and public health authorities about the Omicron variant at this point are basically two things. First, it appears to be more contagious, given that it has become more widespread than the Delta variant in South Africa and Botswana within a much shorter period. Second, with its 50 mutations, 32 of which are in the viral region through which it binds to host cells, the Omicron presents a complex structure that may enable it to elude vaccine protection.
But what if Omicron is found to be highly transmissible, yet causes only the mildest symptoms and only rarely death—shouldn’t that be viewed as a key to acquiring natural herd immunity to the more severe forms of COVID-19?