The same week that millions of Americans gathered with family and friends, many of them thankful they could reunite after more than a year apart, a new high-risk variant was identified in southern Africa. Named omicron, it threatens to reset the hard-won gains made against the pandemic.
Before you despair or throw your hands up in frustration, it’s important to understand that while omicron must be taken seriously, its ultimate impact remains unknown.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” President Joe Biden said Monday. “We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions, and speed, not chaos and confusion.”
This is not the first variant to emerge — the delta variant, first identified in late 2020, is currently dominant across the world — but what has health experts worried are omicron’s high number of mutations. These may make the virus more transmissible as well as better able to evade immunity, whether gained through vaccination or previous infection.
So far, information is mixed. South African officials report new cases show mostly mild to moderate symptoms, but it is still early and most patients are younger. Severe illness has been concentrated among those who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.
In response, the U.S. has banned travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries, but while that may slow the spread, it is unlikely to contain it. As of Tuesday, the variant also has been identified in Canada, Australia, Israel, Hong Kong and at least six European countries.
Public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, said it may take about two weeks to gather enough data on the new variant to address its effects with any certainty. In the meantime, wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and being fully vaccinated — including booster shots, if eligible — remain essential.
Vaccines are not only crucial to help prevent illness, but they also slow down the spread of the virus, which in turn reduces its capacity to mutate. Most mutations are harmless, but given enough time and human hosts who serve as Petri dishes, a variant may emerge that is easier to spread, deadlier for those who get sick and capable of bypassing current vaccines.
More needs to be done to prevent this from happening. On a global scale, this means the U.S. and other developed nations must do better in helping vaccinate the world. On an individual level, it means getting vaccinated, including the booster shot, if you can.
Vaccination numbers in Washington overall are strong, but there are marked disparities. Western counties such as King and Jefferson have more than 70% of residents fully vaccinated, while counties such as Stevens in the east and Skamania in the south have less than 40%.
Even if humanity is lucky and omicron is a dud, as long as we remain in a pandemic, there’s always potential for the fire next time.