The great Omicron freakout

Omicron is coming! But what do we actually know about the new variant, and does it justify the reaction we're seeing from governments? Let's look.

The great Omicron freakout
Photo by Andrey Metelev / Unsplash

Omicron is coming! But what do we actually know about the new variant, and does it justify the reaction we're seeing from governments? Let's take a look.

"Be prepared to do anything and everything"

We must be prepared to do "anything and everything" because of how dangerous Omicron may be, officials say. Headlines tell us "nations brace for the worst," adding new travel restrictions, and doubling down on masking and boosters.

Nations brace for the worst - The Washington Post

"Because of Omicron," the CDC says all adults should now be boosted.

The UK went a step further, directing everyone down to age 12 to receive a booster every three months from here out instead of every six.

Health officials cite the number of mutations in Omicron as being of concern, inferring that its greater infectiousness means it probably evades vaccine protections.

In short, the recipe is boosters, boosters, and more Booo000sters. Surely they have great data to back up booster efficacy for Omicron, yes? Well, no, but Anthony "I-Represent-Science" Fauci says he "hopes" it will.

Conor McGregor tweets about boosters
Seinfeld omicron booster meme

If all these feels a little like deja vu all over again, you're not wrong. Before Delta was more than even 2% of cases in the U.S. in of March 2021, it was getting blamed for covid surges in deep blue lockdown states with high vax rates. The waning of vaccine protection was similarly blamed on Delta's emergence, even though clinical trial data showed efficacy was waning well before that, as the British Medical Journal editors pointed out.

Simpsons meme covid alpha delta omicron

Today, again, with many highly vaccinated states and countries having record seasonal surges despite onerous passport schemes and even N95 masking mandates, Omicron is being put front and center despite being only a few confirmed cases in a handful of countries.

Germany covid chart

New York's governor even declared a new* state of emergency, citing impending shortages in hospital capacity on Omicron, a virus which doesn't even exist in her state yet. Pay no mind that she recently forced 70,000 healthcare workers to be fired, causing hospitals to close entire wings and bring in the National Guard to staff them even during low covid spread. But look over here at the scary Omicron, citizens!

*Seriously, when did the original state of emergency in New York end, or is this just a double-danger-no-takebacksies emergency declaration?

super troopers meme - covid can't emergency any harder
Meanwhile, in New York...

What we actually know about Omicron's seriousness

Not a lot, is the short answer. It will be weeks. But what we do know so far doesn't seem to support these reactions.

We know it has whole bunch of mutations to the spike that might mean it can evade vaccine-induced antibodies and possibly monoclonal antibody treatments. Omicron's mutations probably occurred in a person with untreated HIV, allowing this variant to get a lot of batting practice against weakened immune response, according to a paper published in Nature.

Although very little is yet known about Omicron's immunogenicity – how sick it makes people – the doctor who identified Omicron says these patients so far are seeing much milder symptoms than normal, not more serious.

Omicron symptoms mild so far - South African doctor
The South African doctor who found the new variant says patients are showing very mild symptoms so far.

What's particularly interesting about this is seeing even BioNTech's CEO taking the opportunity afforded by Omicron headlines to redefine the vaccine's protection solely in terms of preventing serious illness, tacitly admitting what we already knew –– vaccination does precious little to prevent transmission over time.

Omicron Risks Infecting Vaccinated People but May Not Cause Them Severe Illness — The Wall Street Journal
Some scientists say the virus will likely remain vulnerable to immune cells; ‘Don’t freak out,’ says BioNTech co-founder

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