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By Ashish Jha
Dr. Jha is the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
Every few months, the world learns of a new variant of the coronavirus. While most of these variants turn out to be inconsequential, some, like the Delta variant, are immensely consequential. The latest, B.1.1.529, now known as the Omicron variant, bears very close watching because of concerns that it may spread more quickly than Delta, possibly even among the vaccinated. It is essential that world leaders respond quickly and aggressively even before all the data about this variant emerge.
In the days ahead, as information builds, it will be tempting to give in to fear or indifference. We cannot succumb to either. The global community must take each variant seriously. Acting early is far superior to waiting until all the facts are in. It may turn out that the variant is not more contagious or that it responds perfectly well to our current vaccines. In that latter fortuitous scenario, the current response may be seen as an overreaction. But if this variant, with all of its concerning features, turns out to be as contagious and immune-evasive as many experts worry it might be, waiting until all the facts are in will leave us hopelessly far behind.
How worrisome is Omicron? There are three key questions that help scientists understand how consequential any variant might be.
The first question is whether the variant is more transmissible than the current, prevalent Delta strain? Second, does it cause more severe disease? And third, will it render our immune defenses — from vaccines and prior infections — less effective (a phenomenon known as immune escape)?
On transmissibility, the data, while early, look worrisome. This new variant appears to have taken off very quickly in South Africa, with early national data suggesting the variant already makes up the majority of sequenced cases in the country. It’s possible that this early data will be revised as epidemiologists look closer at factors other than transmissibility, such as whether an early Omicron superspreader event led to the variant appearing more highly contagious than it really is. While this is possible, the more likely scenario is that Omicron does spread more easily than Delta.
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