Vero Hong Kong
A projector image showing immunofluorescence staining of Omicron infected Vero E6 cells is displayed on a screen in Hong Kong on December 1, 2021. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have succeeded in isolating the omicron coronavirus variant from clinical specimens, making them the first research team in Asia to do it, the university said. Image Credit: AP

The arrival of Omicron made me curious and anxious. Whenever a new coronavirus variant emerges, I spend a lot of time learning about it. The world of germs is dark and dangerous, with scant information on newer strains. That makes it interesting. It becomes a voyage of discovery.

The new virus strain looks nasty with its 50 mutations, and the 32 changes to the spike protein should make it more infectious. I was interested in finding out what it means in reality.

In theory, mutations to the spike protein would lead to more virulence and increased transmissibility. Moreover, since most vaccines and therapies target the spike protein, they would be less effective against Omicron, or B.1.1.529.

That’s what science tells us. And I believe it. But sometimes, for some reason, the reality could be a little different. Science was right about the Delta variant, but Beta (first reported in South Africa 2020), mercifully, didn’t live up to its reputation.

WHO warning on Delta

COVID-19 has become the plague of our times, and it isn’t finished yet if the WHO’s prediction of 2.2 million deaths in Europe by March is any indication. Even before I had made sense of the World Health Organisation’s warning, Omicron came along. Alarm bells rang, red flags went up. I plunged headlong into medical journals, searching for all scraps of information on the new strain.

I still don’t know about its origins. Some reports said Omicron was first found in Botswana, while others say Gauteng province in South Africa is the source. The strain was identified in the Netherlands from samples collected on November 19 and 23, which means it was present there before South Africa reported it to the WHO on November 24. And all the cases popping worldwide must have been infected at least a week ago if you consider the incubation period of the virus.

Face mask
A commuter walks beside a notice board reminding people to wear face coverings at Stratford underground station in east London, England, on December 1, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

How the world reacted to Omicron

Did we react late? No, not at all. In fact, the world responded very quickly, having learnt the lessons from the previous waves of infections. Countries cannot be blamed for banning flights from southern Africa. It certainly is not an over-reaction. It is a necessity when the world has returned to some kind of normality after two years of living with the rampant surge of the virus.

Travel has picked up with speed with more airlines operating more flights. The tourism industry has witnessed a healthy uptick, and jobs have returned since the economies around the world have shown signs of recovery. Even Delta’s swing across the world did stop the revival. That’s when Omicron showed up with a new set of arsenal.

Should we be scared? I don’t know. It sure looks scary, but is it as bad as it seems? Too early to say. Reports from South Africa say that the most afflicted are young, and cases tend to be mild. But experts warn us that it’s premature to read into such data since the full extent of the risk will be known after it spreads across a broad range of people. And more severe symptoms manifest in the second week. Which means we still don’t know much about the variant’s behaviour.

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Omicron is a reminder that the worst is not yet over. So we have to act prudently. More importantly, continue the safety protocols we have been practising for two years. Mask-wearing, handwashing and social distancing: there’s no substitute for that.

So, am I worried? A little, but not overly. A COVID attack and two vaccines must have bestowed me enough antibodies and T-cells. That should protect me. But I won’t be reckless and cast caution into the winds. There will be minor adjustments to my routines to enhance safety. Don’t be surprised if you find me jogging with my mask on.

Omicron is a mutant, a coronavirus mutant. But this is no time to press the panic button. Just have to keep the guard up. I have. Have you?