Updated 11/29 to include new cases identified in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.
Omicron. The New Covid Variant Sounds as Scary as a Massive Killer Robot. On the plus side, it won't be confused with an airline (unlike the Delta variant) or really any other major company. But all kidding aside, while obviously most of us don't want to become infected with Omicron or any other flavor of COVID-19, is Friday's massive stock market correction and the more rabid fear mongering something of an overreaction? Didn't we always know that Delta wouldn't be the last highly infectious variant to emerge?
I'd argue that unfortunately we under-reacted in a short-sighted way earlier on in the pandemic, politicizing face masks and vaccines instead of focusing on public health both in the U.S. and worldwide. A big part of vaccination isn't just benefit for oneself–it's protection for other individuals, including those too frail or too young to be vaccinated. Most school age children in most developed countries are required to be vaccinated for certain diseases–that's how we eliminated polio in developed countries, and how we nearly eliminated measles by 2000, although more recently, under-vaccination for measles has led to outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest, New York, California, and elsewhere. The insufficient number of COVID-19 fully vaccinated individuals all over the world helps to enable the slew of mutations (over 50, and over 30 in the spike protein alone) that we see in Omicron and the rapid spread of the disease.
Omicron is just one of the variants to come, part of Covid becoming an endemic disease. Everyone will meet a Covid variant at some point, it's just a question of how protected one is when one meets it. The current crop of vaccines were made to prevent death and serious illness (not to prevent all infection), which they've done extremely well, particularly in the case of the mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna. Updated mRNA vaccines can be tailored to address variant mutations; Pfizer has indicated that it expects to know within two weeks if Omicron is indeed highly resistant to the current Pfizer vaccine, and if so will be able to update its vaccine within 100 days.
I understand why airlines cancelled flights to South Africa and countries quickly shut borders in order to buy time to better understand the variant's transmissibility and morbidity, but these travel restrictions should be temporary measures. Travel with required pre-travel and on-arrival testing and, if needed, a few days of required quarantine or self-isolation should be put in place as soon as possible rather than the outright travel bans that the U.S. imposed on China, the EU, and other countries for the majority of the pandemic, since Omicron is already present on at least three continents and probably more. To date it's been found not only in South Africa and Botswana, but also in Hong Kong, Israel, Belgium, the UK, Italy, Germany, and most likely is among the 61 COVID-19 cases identified in the Netherlands among KLM passengers from South Africa. Additional cases have been identified in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. It wouldn't be surprising at all if it's already circulating in the U.S. In fact, Dr. Charity Dean, who presciently warned in early 2020 that there was already community spread of COVID-19 within the U.S., estimates there are already ~2000 Omicron cases in the U.S. that so far haven't been detected, because the U.S. sequences so few cases of COVID-19 per capita compared to the UK and South Africa.
Safe travels to all returning from Thanksgiving celebrations, and stay well!
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