There’s another new COVID in town. Last summer it was delta and this winter it’s omicron. At some point in the future it’ll be something else. New variants — and new “variants of concern” — are going to keep emerging. And when they do, what should you do?
Over Thanksgiving weekend, the world got the news that the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had been identified by South Africa’s intensive COVID-19 monitoring system. In fact, this particular variant was identified so early that no one knows much of anything about it yet, other than that it has 32 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that allows it to infect cells. But that’s about all scientists can tell us at this point. Is omicron more or less dangerous than the variants currently in circulation? Can it evade vaccination or previous infection? How transmissible is it? Where did it originate? It will be weeks before anyone has clear answers to those questions.
In the meantime, people all over the world know this thing is out there and know it has mutated in ways that concern scientists, but don’t know what — if anything — individuals can or should do about that. That’s a stressful place to be. And it is a place that we are almost certain to revisit.
Mutations happen every time viruses replicate. The more people who get infected, the more opportunities there are for random mutations to happen and for those mutations to turn out to be something that helps the virus spread or survive. Only about 40 percent of the global population is fully vaccinated, and that number is far, far lower in countries that lack the money and infrastructure to buy and distribute vaccines. There are 14 African countries where vaccination rates are less than 2 percent.
In other words, there’s lots of opportunity for new variants to arise. And they will. Which is why we’d like to take this opportunity to give you some tips on how to process news of a new variant.
1) Take a deep breath
“I think that there’s very much a balance. That we’re staying educated and understanding there’s a potential new threat, while also not losing entire hope,” said Katelyn Jetelina, a professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She said that telling the public about new variants of concern is about education and transparency, not instilling fear. The thing is out there. Scientists are working around the clock to understand it better. And you deserve to know that there is something going on in the world of public health that could potentially end up affecting you.
But just because something is news doesn’t mean it’s a reason to panic. Omicron — or any other variant — may not even be something anyone cares about a few months after it’s detected.
2) Evaluate your personal precautions
“I think [the announcement of a new variant of concern] is a time for people to pause and think about how they are conducting their daily lives, and what protections they have in place,” said Dr. Sharon Wright, chief infection prevention officer at Beth Israel Lahey Health in Boston. The good news here, she said, is that there are no surprises like there were when the novel coronavirus was first discovered in 2019. You already know what to do to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Get vaccinated, if you aren’t. Get kids vaccinated, if they aren’t. Wear a mask in indoor public places, especially if they’re crowded. Avoid really crowded indoor events. Use tools like rapid tests to reduce your risk of carrying something into a family gathering or party. Those are the basics. If you’re already doing them, great. You don’t need to go on full lockdown just because scientists are investigating a new variant of concern. If you aren’t already doing those things, now is a good time to consider employing more of those precautions in your life.
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Now is also a good time to get a booster, Wright and Jetelina said. Booster vaccines recently became available to all American adults but there’s been reasonable scientific debate over whether everyone actually needs them. The appearance of omicron pushes that question into the “yes” for Jetelina. An existing vaccine booster is, obviously, not going to be optimized to protect against a variant that just got discovered. But, Jetelina said, getting a booster might help your immune system not just temporarily make more antibodies, but also produce a wider variety of antibodies that can bind to recognize different parts of the virus. That would mean a greater chance of your immune system recognizing and attacking even a highly mutated variant. This is something scientists are still studying, but it’s a reason some scientists think boosters could be useful even if your previous COVID-19 vaccinations are still protecting you from severe illness.
3) Advocate for policies that really work
If it feels like there’s not much individuals can really do in response to a new variant of concern, that’s because there isn’t. This is a problem for scientists and politicians at this stage. But it matters how governments choose to respond. Travel bans have not been shown to prevent the spread of disease and could backfire by punishing the countries that built up viral surveillance infrastructure necessary to spot new variants early.
What would be helpful instead? Increased access to cheap rapid tests, Wright said, and Jetelina agreed. “Other countries have rapid antigen tests freely available to them … [they] aren’t perfect, but they’re a fantastic tool for surveillance,” Jetelina said. Unfortunately, in the U.S. those tests have remained expensive and are often out of stock. If the government found a way to change that, it could make a real difference for public health.
The other big policy that could change things requires international effort. We need improved vaccine equity, Jetelina said. Providing boosters and vaccines to our own population is great. But it’s not going to stop new variants from forming while there are still places where more than 90 percent of the population is totally unvaccinated. No matter what happens with omicron, new variants will arise. But vaccine equity is the way to stop new variants before they start.