Omicron – Variant or Scariant?

By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

We are barely over the Delta variant when our health professionals and policy wonks are beating the drum on another variant. Known as  Omicron, it has already commandeered the fear mongering experts and power-grabbing politicians to ring the alarm against this latest mutant of the infamous Corona virus.

Ever ready to jump on the bandwagon, President Biden (backed or led by Fauci) claimed the global risk of Omicron variant is ‘very high;’ whereupon he proceeded to mandate vaccinations, boosters, and indoor masking, while also rushing to announce a travel ban on African countries from where the latest mutation is originating, along with potentially the self-quarantining by all citizens and non-citizens flying into the US from anywhere in the world.

All that stringency, while conveniently letting alone the hordes of those who are illegally entering the US from our porous borders with the Southern hemisphere, and under government’s protection and patronage, are being transported and delivered to various parts of the US free of all Covid testing, screening and vaccination mandates. If this is not a comedy of errors, one would be hard put to find another more foolish (and potentially dangerous) scenario.

Biden is in hot waters. Of that there is little doubt. He had staked his presidential bid on handling the Corona pandemic more deftly than did Trump. He even claimed that a president who is witness to the death of over hundred thousand Americans has no right to remain president and must resign. As corona deaths under Biden have already exceeded the mortality under Trump, it has upended Biden’s credibility while collapsing his “moral claim” to continue as US President. Meanwhile, the hysteria to have everyone alive vaccinated – regardless of age, prior exposure, possible immunity, or other conditions – is getting an unexpected beating and rollback from various US courts.

First detected in South Africa and Botswana, Omicron according to WHO could quickly spread around the globe resulting in “severe consequences” depending on where surges occur and surrounding conditions. Even though no deaths linked to the omicron variant have been reported, the fear is that the variant has mutations that could help it both to evade an immune-system response and to make it more transmissible.

In the US, the first case of the new variant surfaced in California, but so far, no transmission in the immediate circle of exposure has been detected. However, uncertainty remains and fuels suspicion, even panic. Biden’s contention that “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” and “We have more tools to fight the variant than we have ever had before” is less soothing to already taut nerves.

Fauci’s claim that the U.S. will need about two weeks to learn more definitive information about the omicron variant’s transmissibility and severity – sounds equally unconvincing – given his wishy-washy discourse throughout the pandemic. Fauci’s belief that “existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID” seems more of the same non-committal generalities.

Biden’s presidency now rests on a shaky promise and failing credibility that he can tackle and overcome the pandemic’s ever-changing incarnations. “In the event — hopefully unlikely — that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to Omicron, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” is a Biden promise that remains hollow given the paucity of secular sequential data on the trajectory of each new mutant of the mother virus, and the uncertain lasting effect of the vaccines.

Meanwhile, the stock market is on a slide, inflation is taking over, and Christmas related expenses are mounting. Add to this, the inflationary impact of high spending and trillion-dollar deficit financing, and a generally deteriorating law and order situation across urban America, which together are causing rising concerns over the impending collapse of a once prosperous economy.

By placing Kamala Harris on the Supreme Court, as the grapevine goes, Biden could effectively disarm a potential bidder for his job, but there will be others to challenge his credibility as a potential leader of his party and of the country. Round Two of the Biden-Trump joust no longer seems improbable.

As the virus spreads to other countries including Netherlands, Austria, France, Canada, U.K., Australia Hong Kong, and India, the political risks to the stability of existing regimes hang heavy, like monsoon clouds. Any hint of imminent shutdowns or lockdowns will not cut ice with already inflamed populations, while mandated vaccinations will continue to fester covert and overt opposition.

As lockdowns begin in European countries and elsewhere, frustration and defiance are certain to grow. In India, voices in the media are already warning the government to forego the lockdown option. As Swaminathan Aiyar warns,

“Many in India will call for stringent lockdowns, including a shutdown of international air traffic, to check the virus. This would be a mistake. Many global studies (including one by Surjit Bhalla, India’s Executive Director in the IMF) have concluded that lockdowns have more negative than positive effects, and can deepen rather than alleviate misery. India made the mistake of imposing the strictest lockdown in the world in March 2020. It must not go anywhere near that policy in the face of Omicron”.

The world, as Aiyar rightly suggests, “will have to view new mutating strains as inevitable, to be managed but not eliminated. The task will become easier as seropositivity increases. Already maybe 70% of Indians have had at least one inoculation or else have antibodies and resistant T-cells from mild infections. Vaccinations will never be 100% effective, so some deaths will be unavoidable. But that is true of deaths from several other causes, and the world has learned to live with them. The same approach should apply to Covid”.

What We Know about Omicron, as per CDC

Despite the increased attention of Omicron, Delta continues to be the main variant circulating in the United States.

On November 24, 2021, a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, was reported to WHO. It was first detected in specimens collected on November 11, 2021 in Botswana and on November 14, 2021 in South Africa.

On November 26, 2021, WHO named the B.1.1.529 Omicron and classified it as a Variant of Concern (VOC). On November 30, 2021, the United States designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern, and on December 1, 2021 the first confirmed U.S. case of Omicron was identified.

CDC has been collaborating with global public health and industry partners to learn about Omicron, as we continue to monitor its course. CDC has been using genomic surveillance throughout the course of the pandemic to track variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and inform public health practice. We don’t yet know how easily it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, or how well available vaccines and medications work against it.

  • How easily does Omicron spread? The Omicron variant likely will spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and how easily Omicron spreads compared to Delta remains unknown. CDC expects that anyone with Omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.
  • Will Omicron cause more severe illness? More data are needed to know if Omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.
  • Will vaccines work against Omicron? Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant. However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur. With other variants, like Delta, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. The recent emergence of Omicron further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.
  • Will treatments work against Omicron? Scientists are working to determine how well existing treatments for COVID-19 work. Based on the changed genetic make-up of Omicron, some treatments are likely to remain effective while others may be less effective.

    A published author based in California, Neera Kuckreja Sohoni regularly contributes opeds to The South Asian Times.

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