The answers are still unknown, which makes everyone even more worried, more afraid, and when we are afraid, as I wrote in my latest book, “COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science,” we jump to the worst-case scenario, we over-personalize the risk, we lose the ability to reason.
Politicians and the media don’t help us. Our leaders want to be perceived as acting ahead of the risk, which is why the travel advisories are being put in place even though this variant has already spread into Europe and likely on into the United States, so travel restrictions now will do little.
The WHO, which has an office in South Africa, was, as usual, late in sounding the alarm, finally calling omicron a variant of concern on Friday, when the viral horses were already out of the barn.
How concerned should we be? The answer is to be found by addressing three basic scientific concerns.
First, how severe is the disease that this variant causes? The answer is somewhat reassuring so far. The numbers are small, but there is as of yet no evidence that it causes more severe disease than the original virus or the delta variant. In fact, historically, as pandemic viruses evolve, they tend to become less deadly, as mutations that allow them to transmit more easily but not kill or severely sicken the host are favored.
In fact, the second basic scientific concern with omicron is whether it spreads more easily than previous iterations of the virus, including delta. Time will tell whether the multitude of mutations it carries gives omicron this survival advantage. But so far, the case numbers are small, and it is too early to conclude anything on this one way or the other. Delta has predominated for months, precisely because it is far more transmissible than any of the other variants out there. Is omicron more transmissible than delta? We don’t know and we should not assume it is.