Why are we getting reports about two cases of the Omicron variant in Canada, or "eight more" in the United Kingdom? Is it because we know the disease that this version of the virus causes has more severe outcomes than other strains? No, we don't. Is it because we know this variant evades vaccine protections at all, much less at a level that could throw the new equilibrium we've found out of balance? No, we do not. Do we even know that this variant is more transmissible than Delta, which is still all over the place? Nope. Yet a whole lot of coverage over the last few days has treated Omicron, about which we still know very little, like it's Ebola.
In the time since Omicron became front-page stuff a few days ago, the variant has mutated from "a concerning new thing that we need to find out more about" to "holy fucking SHIT!!!!!!" Nothing has actually changed in that time except the tenor of news coverage and some growing alarm calls from public-health officials and the CEO of vaccine manufacturer Moderna—calls that are usually accompanied by an admission that we don't really have much data on this thing. This stuff does not reflect knowledge gleaned from a sufficiently large pool of evidence around what Omicron is and what it does to people. It is speculation. In some cases, it's fanning hysteria.
The latter is a business model with regard to COVID-19, one that the news media flirts with regularly. Fear and conflict drive clicks and viewership, which is also why anti-vax stuff is so successful. But this does not come without a cost. What if Omicron turns out to be another Lambda—a bad virus strain that is not especially bad compared to the bad virus strains that have upended our lives over the last year and a half? What if this panic—and it's becoming a panic—is in the end unearned? You might not have heard much about them, but the World Health Organization has identified 13 variants—Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu—five of which have been considered Variants of Concern. Omicron could well be the next disaster of our time, or it could not. Maybe we could just wait to know more.
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