With 5.3 million dead, including 808,000 in this country, and significant disruptions to the lives of the rest of us, it’s hard not to feel that the SARS CoV-2 has animus against the human race. And although a new variant was expected, the announcement of omicron the day after Thanksgiving seemed to reaffirm that the novel coronavirus still controls the narrative of the pandemic, and the scientific community once again knows very little about the new form of enemy we are facing.
The good news is that the coronavirus does not have a “purpose,” and this is not March 2020. In the nearly two years since the United States hastily shut down in the early grips of the pandemic, we have fallen into a COVID rhythm of existence — with government and medical leaders largely chanting a consistent message: vaccinate, boost, mask and social distance. These are the weapons available to us, and everyone should be using them.
We also need to inoculate ourselves from panicked responses to the fearful or provocative terms we hear in the media. Thus, for example, omicron is not a new virus. It is a variant of the existing virus. And while it has what we are told are a “record” 50 mutations — 30 of them in the spike protein – experts have explained that in the scientific world the words “mutation” and “mutant” are loaded terms, and scientifically speaking, a mutation is akin to a typo. Sometimes they are serious, other times they are not. Scientists need to study the mutations in order to determine their seriousness, and they need time to do so properly. In the meantime, there is no reason to panic. And that is so even when the World Health Organization calls the new variant one of “concern,” since they too are waiting for the same scientific analysis that will explain the severity of the threat.
There are three central questions researchers try to answer about each new variant: How fast does it spread? Is it capable of causing more serious disease? And can it evade treatments such as vaccines?
While we wait for the answers, we know what to do. But to shorten the pandemic and reduce the chances of future mutations, we need to vaccinate as many people as possible — all over the world. That’s because large unvaccinated populations — whether here or abroad — are incubators for variants. And a proliferation of variants in unvaccinated places will only extend the pandemic and increase its impact on our daily lives. It is for this reason that the rich nations of the world must step up and provide other nations the means to vaccinate.
In this country, the unvaccinated should take a jab, and the vaccinated should get boosted. Where appropriate (and certainly where mandated) wear a mask and practice social distancing. Responsible localities will loosen or tighten restrictions, depending on current trends. It is frustrating. But this is how we will manage the pandemic. We know the drill.