THE Greek letter of the day is Omicron. It is the current Covid-19 variant that was first detected in South Africa, but it is not by any means called a “South African” variant; only that the scientists there were quick to sound the alarm as soon as they were able to sequence its genome.
Yes, countries were quick to issue travel restrictions all over again in combination with quarantines and tests. This is not unexpected. After all, if we hope to get a handle on this pandemic which has prevailed for nearly two years now, we need to take stock of past mistakes and learn from them.
But experts say travel bans are mere palliative measures. It merely delays the inevitable, and soon this variant will appear all over the globe. We can only hope that it is not as deadly and as transmissible as its predecessor, the Delta variant, nor will it evade the protection from the severe disease that we have obtained from the vaccines so far.
It will take weeks to make this determination. We can only rely on expert conjectures who say that it is in the nature of viruses to evolve into variants. They “shape shift,” so to speak, in order to evade antibodies, whether natural or vaccine-generated, and that “need” to “survive” means viruses do evolve.
The virus needs a host to survive. Outside of the host, it dies. Or if the host dies, it dies too. I think that is the idea for herd immunity. If the virus no longer has the capability to infect a host, then it vanishes. Donald Trump’s infamous special Covid-19 adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, in fact, advocated that it is alright for people to get infected with Covid-19 because when recovered, the person’s natural acquired immunity will stop the transmission of the virus. This theory, of course, received so much flak in the field of bioethics and medical ethics. How many people must die before the natural chain of transmission gets broken?
So we draw on the tools at our disposal to hasten the demise of this virus and therefore end the pandemic. The most potent in the arsenal of course are the vaccines. Then we have masks, physical distancing, well-ventilated spaces, handwashing, the consumption of vitamin supplements to strengthen individual immunity, and so on. But, as with the Delta variant and now Omicron, we have learned that the virus has that uncanny ability to re-invent itself. And it happens in areas where there are low vaccination turnouts, or with high incidences of vaccine resistance.
If it is in the nature of viruses to evolve, then what are its implications? What I can recall from listening to experts is that if the Omicron variant is the virus’ way of “surviving” by not killing its host, then its effect on human physiology should be “mild.” This, in fact, is a South African doctor’s early assessment of patients that have been admitted to hospitals and have been screened for the Omicron variant.
Second, while it had been initially determined that the Omicron variant might evade the protection configuration of the current vaccines, there is no better option than to get vaccinated because the body’s immunological memory generated by vaccination will help fight the illness that might be caused by the Omicron variant. This is the reason why booster shots are being rolled out in order to buttress the body’s immune response to include possible changes in the virus’ genetic makeup.
The makers of Moderna did admit that the current vaccines including theirs could be materially less effective against this new variant, thus their need to determine from the data just how “material” the vaccines’ effectiveness has waned. The impact of this pronouncement is, of course, to panic the markets and shake the already shaken world economy.
And there is the pandemic fatigue. In the Philippines, we have seen a downtrend in the positivity rate for some weeks that has somehow buoyed a kind of optimism that we might finally be rounding the turn. We have discarded that pesky face shield, sent some of our children on limited face-to-face classes, opened one-seat apart movie houses, and largely hoped that perhaps we are finally on the road to normalcy.
Then the Omicron variant happened. While we have been told early into its detection that it is a “variant of concern,” somehow, it is just tempting to tune out. To just go to the malls, or to travel, to plan parties, to think that the worst is over. But time and again it has been said the virus will do what it is designed to do, regardless of how tired we all are.
While we are still weeks away from ascertaining the full configuration of this Omicron variant, we could probably take a long view of the situation and consider that if the virus morphs into a seasonal affliction like the flu, then annual boosters might be the norm of the future. Yet again, if the virus is much more potent than the flu, then this might cause us to rethink our pre-Covid-19 behaviors and accept that this virus might just be shaping not just norms but cultural norms. Therefore, what we have been used to doing before the onset of this virus might be a thing of the past.