Omicron Opinion artwork
Omicron is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

I am not exactly sure why the World Health Organisation names those deadly coronavirus strains after the Greek alphabet. But it is somehow fitting. My best guess is that the educated fellas in the organisation are fond of Greek tragedies, are we not all? Especially those great ones written by Sophocles such as Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Electra.

If you haven’t read any of them, please do. They are great works of literature, mostly written at least 400 years before Christ. Anyway, I think the guys at WHO believes rightly that the pandemic is nothing short of a tragic event, henceforth, should be named after this beautiful alphabet we use so often today in almost every aspect of our lives, especially in medicine.

The latest COVID-19 mutation resulted in a new variant that is highly transmittable, we are told. It was named ‘Omicron’ by WHO after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. Apparently, WHO had already used 12 letters to name the different variants of COVID-19, and that is simply tragic by all means.

Delta, the other infamous variant, is number four on the Greek alphabet. We have already had, if you remember, the Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants early on last year. But they were not “variants of concern” as Omicron is being described by WHO officials.

So, it is a cause for concern. Of course it is and that is absolutely understandable. But the tragic thing is that WHO guys, who evidently adore their tragedies, made it sound like a cause for panic. And it shouldn’t be.

A jittery WHO

This is their statement that sent the world trembling on that Friday, November 26: “The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high. Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences. [and] the overall global risk related to the new VOC Omicron is assessed as very high.”

Shortly after the release of the statement, it was mayhem. Markets around the world tumbled in ways we haven’t seen since the height of the coronavirus in the first three months of 2020.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped almost 1,200 points during its regular session on that Friday, the worst fall in more than 13 months. Oil prices sank 10 per cent, the biggest loss since April 2020. Many countries rushed to close their borders and restrict travel.

Those knee jerk reactions threaten to deal a considerable blow to the ongoing efforts by countries to bring life back to normal. The wounds are yet to heal. Therefore, the fragile economic recovery, we have seen in some parts of the world, is likely to be the first victim.

The past two weeks have been sort of déjà vu. As if we were back to square one, to the beginning of the pandemic. And that is wrong. But statements like these from WHO and others spooked us all.

So, why did the WHO exaggerate (in my opinion at least) the discovery this way? And why did the markets follow the organisation’s lead (mislead). The two culprits who caused the great panic witnessed on that day are the WHO and Wall Street - the usual suspects, some would say.

Unlike its usual self, the WHO beat everybody else this to raise an alarm about the new variant. Last year, the organisation was slammed heavily for its sluggish response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The first cases were reported in November 2019 but WHO officials acknowledged the serious nature of the virus only four months later.

A report released in May this year said the response of the WHO and various governments to the initial outbreak was a “toxic cocktail”.

The report, named ‘COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic’, was written by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, set up by WHO itself. It concluded that Covid-19, which killed more than 5.255 million people so far, was “preventable.”

Failures, gaps and delays

WHO “should have declared a global emergency earlier than it did,” the report added. One of the chief writers of the report, the former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, noted that the death and mass infection were the result of “myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response.”

With that in mind and eager not to repeat last year’s dreadful mistake, WHO probably wanted to be ahead of the curve this time. In the process, they might have done a great deal of damage this time too — a cry wolf this time around though.

Wall Street added to the panic. The Dow Jones index, traditionally a benchmark for the health of the US economy, sold off like crazy on that Friday and as expected was followed by markets all over the world, including the oil market.

Omicron could have very well been just an excuse to trigger an overdue correction in a market that has been dangerously overheated for months. Most economists said the stock market has been more than 30 per cent overvalued in 2021.

The high valuations “suggest a sharp market sell-off could be imminent,” the Deutsche Bank warned in a note to investors in September. With US stocks trading at “historically extreme” levels, “the risk that the correction is hard is growing,” the bank said.

The point is that we are yet to know the necessary details of the new variant. We know that Omicron was first discovered in South Africa and few other African countries. But we also know that tests are still being done to determine the nature and effects of the virus.

Meanwhile, the majority of the world population are vaccinated for COVID. Ugur Sahin, the founder of BioNTech, the German developer of the Pfizer vaccine, told Reuters on Friday that his lab should be able “to adapt its coronavirus vaccine relatively quickly in response to the Omicron variant.”

Good news. Also, the current treatment against COVID, including Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers, proven effective against the Delta variant, could very well be as effective against Omicron, experts said last week.

Therefore, and like US President Joe Biden said, Omicron is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic. We managed to overcome the pandemic, or almost, thanks to stringency measures especially the face mask wearing, social distancing, sanitisation and most importantly the vaccination.

Let us just continue to do that. We will beat this one too — who needs another Greek tragedy?