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Don’t panic, but be smart about the new Omicron coronavirus variant

The United States, as yet, has no reported COVID-19 cases linked to Omicron. But all of us should make an extra effort to follow the advice of public health experts: Get a shot, wear a mask and maintain social distance.

A COVID testing sign at O’Hare Airport. Travel bans should only be a stopgap to begin to get a handle on the omicron variant, until vaccination and testing of travelers can ramp up.
A COVID-19 testing sign at O’Hare Airport. Travel bans should only be a stopgap to begin to get a handle on the Omicron variant, until vaccination and testing of travelers can ramp up.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Here’s the bad news about the Omicron variant: Scientists do not know yet exactly how transmissible the variant is, the severity of illness it might cause and whether existing vaccines will be effective against it.

The good news is that the signs so far are worrisome but not alarming.

“I would urge caution but not panic,” as Dr. Emily Landon, chief epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago Hospitals, told us. “We don’t know enough yet. All we know is that there’s a potentially dangerous variant that exists and is spreading.”

Scientists in South Africa first reported the presence of the highly mutated Omicron on Nov. 24, prompting the White House to quickly ban travel from South Africa and a number of its neighboring countries. Omicron has now turned up in some 20 countries worldwide, including Canada. In a twist, it turns out that Omicron was in the Netherlands days before being reported in South Africa, according to NPR.

It’s inevitable that Omicron will eventually turn up here in the U.S., as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, has said.

“But as we all know, when you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here,” Fauci said in an interview with ABC’s This Week last Sunday. “The question is: Will we be prepared for it?”

The public can be prepared by following the advice of experts to curb the spread of COVID-19. There’s no need, as yet — and with luck, never — to cancel holiday gatherings or institute lockdowns.

But be cautious and aware. Get vaccinated, especially if you have a pre-existing condition that makes severe illness more likely. Get a booster — the Food & Drug Administration has approved Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna boosters for all adults. Wear a mask. Maintain social distance.

The federal government has so far balked at requiring proof of vaccination for domestic air travelers, though international travelers must show such proof. Understandably, airline executives have balked too, out of concern that the move could hurt business as the hard-hit industry struggles to recover from pandemic losses.

We urge the Biden administration to reconsider and require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for domestic flyers. More than half of Americans favor the idea as well, public opinion polls show.

Vaccination and testing will not completely stop the spread of an airborne virus. Nothing will. But both would make air travel much safer as the holiday approach.

Safer travel, we think, will be more attractive to potential customers — and thus good for business.

Mutations that ‘max out’?

Here’s some of what scientists already know about the new variant.

Omicron has far more mutations than Delta, the variant now responsible for the vast majority of new COVID-19 infections. Italian researchers have found 43, compared with 18 for Delta.

Some of the mutations suggest that Omicron will be better able to evade antibodies, which could make it more resistant to vaccines, to natural immunity caused by infection, or both, Landon explains. Other mutations, similar to those in Delta, could make Omicron more transmissible.

“It remains to be seen how all of this works,” Landon said. There are worrying signs, but at some point, mutations simply “max out” on their impact, she added.

It’s still unclear whether Omicron will cause more severe illness, but early reports from doctors in South Africa and Israel suggest that may not be the case.

Before we worry too much, it’s worth remembering that previously detected variants looked dangerous at first, too. The Lambda variant, for one, initially appeared resistant to vaccines.

None of these earlier variants proved highly dangerous. With luck, the same will happen with Omicron.

Global vaccination lagging badly

Omicron, we hope, is also a reminder to wealthy countries that getting vaccines to everyone, worldwide, is a matter of moral urgency and good public health.

No one should go without access to a life-saving shot just because he or she lives in a poor country. And we will never end the pandemic as long as large swaths of unvaccinated people — some poor countries won’t have widespread access to vaccines until 2023 — remain vulnerable to troublesome variants.

COVAX, the international effort to provide equal access to vaccines worldwide, has yet to come anywhere close to fulfilling its promise. COVAX has contributed less than 5% of all vaccines administered globally and recently announced it would miss its 2 billion target for 2021, STATNews reported in October.

“This is the key piece about COVID we have to come to terms with to get over this pandemic — we aren’t getting anywhere until we all understand we have to be together,” Landon said.

Indeed, we are all connected.

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