Home / Opinion / Views /  Omicron might not be as worrisome as being made out

Here we go again. A third wave may soon be upon us. The number of Omicron cases of Covid in India is still below 500, but could rise very fast. After all, Omicron seems to be the most contagious variant of the virus that we have seen so far.

It also seems to be a relatively mild virus. From what we know so far, most patients either exhibit no symptoms or experience only some trifling cough and cold. So it is quite possible that we have no idea what the actual number of cases is—it could be many times more than what has been detected. And we do not yet know with any certainty how effective our current vaccines are against Omicron. However, worldwide, hospitalization and death figures for Omicron have been low.

Alarm bells are, of course, being clanged. Bill Gates, the Cassandra of epidemics for some years now, and also the world’s leading vaccine proselytizer, posted a series of tweets last Tuesday, saying that the world could be entering the worst phase of the pandemic and that he had cancelled all his Christmas plans. Governments of several countries are considering another lockdown. In India, cries about the urgency of booster doses are getting louder.

But might Omicron actually be the best news we have had so far in the pandemic?

One, if the symptoms of Omicron infection are so mild that most of the patients may not even notice them, how much should we worry? The last serological survey by the Indian Council of Medical Research, whose results were made public in July 2021, estimated that 68% of Indians above the age of six may have already had covid and developed sufficient antibodies. And it’s obvious that most of them did not even know they had been infected.

Two, Omicron is mild but immensely contagious. The fundamental principle of evolution is the propagation of species. A virus needs a host—you, me, a bat, a pangolin—to survive. If it kills the host, it dies too, and cannot propagate its line. The Ebola virus epidemic did not become a worldwide disaster and ended quickly simply because it was too lethal—its average fatality rate was 50%. By killing too many of its hosts, the virus guaranteed its own extinction. It makes absolute evolutionary sense for the covid virus to mutate to milder and less deadly forms and ensure its survival. And it is high time we acknowledged that covid may never go away fully. We need to learn to live it with it, just as we do with flu or that unique Indian affliction called ‘viral fever’.

Three, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Omicron accounted for 73% of new infections last week in the US, nearly a six-fold increase in its share of infections in just seven days. Which means—evolutionary logic again—that it is weeding out the much deadlier Delta variant. And Delta had outcompeted the Alpha variant by being more transmissible, causing the second wave. We should cheer for Omicron beating Delta.

Four, we should be wary of those issuing the most worrying warnings and also read these dire statements carefully. Paul Barton, chief medical officer of vaccine maker Moderna, has said that it is “certainly possible" that Omicron would combine with Delta by swapping genes and form a much deadlier variant. But let’s examine the facts here.

A Michigan State University study found over 7,000 mutations of the virus in the first few months of the pandemic. As someone said, mutation is “the job description of respiratory viruses". But only three covid strains birthed by swapping genes have been recorded; the virus has relied almost wholly on random mutations to make variants. Both Delta and Omicron are random mutations. The two combining is “certainly possible", just as it is certainly possible that even if I drive perfectly carefully on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, a camel can suddenly stray into my path. How “probable" is “certainly possible"? Should I cancel my holiday in Rajasthan?

Omicron has also appeared at a very opportune time for many entities. Vaccine makers like Pfizer and Moderna can stoke fears to build an infinite profit timeline where we have to take booster doses every six months. The West, which has brutally monopolized vaccines—much of Africa has not been able to reach even 15% coverage of the first dose—can now (absurdly) blame Africa because Omicron was first detected there. Attention shifts fully from whether the pandemic was caused by a lab leak in the Wuhan virology centre in China. Even US President Joe Biden may be pleased. The two serious problems he has been facing—inflation and supply-chain disruptions—can be naturally alleviated to an extent if people get scared enough to stay at home and not splurge during the holiday season.

In India, after the initial fumbles, we have done a splendid job of vaccination. The usual critics, stymied for some time, started clamouring two months ago for vaccines for under-18s. Then they began hollering for booster doses. On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced early steps in these directions. So we are moving there. But another lockdown in the face of Omicron would be catastrophic, economically and socially. Right now, there is no reason to panic. We only need to stay vigilant, wear masks and strictly stick to covid protocols.

To end, Bill Gates again: “Omicron moves so quickly that once it becomes dominant in a country, the wave there should last less than three months." Relatively speaking, Omicron could yet turn out to be good news.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines


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