How to deal with the uncertainty surrounding the omicron variant

Travelers walk with their luggage in an airport
Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Nov. 28. Israel on Sunday approved barring entry to foreign nationals as part of its efforts to clamp down on a new coronavirus variant.
Ariel Schalit | AP Photo file

If you’ve been following the news on the brand-new omicron variant of the coronavirus, you’ve probably heard this sentence a few times: “It’s too early for us to know for sure.”

Omicron’s existence was first reported to the WHO only last week, so researchers haven’t had much time to study it, and nobody knows exactly how transmissible it is or if it could evade vaccines.

Understandably, some people are worried. Maybe you yourself have doom-scrolled through some dubious tweets. Maybe you’re thinking about cancelling upcoming travel plans. The U.S. and some other countries have already restricted travel from South Africa, which first reported the discovery of the variant.

How should we approach the uncertainty surrounding omicron, as individuals and as a society? Maggie Koerth, a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis who wrote a piece on this very topic, joined host Cathy Wurzer to give us some ideas.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

What can you do as an individual?

First, don’t panic, Koerth told listeners, because we don’t know if omicron is actually a greater threat than what’s already come in the pandemic. Right now, we should be more worried about high COVID-19 case loads from the delta variant, she said.

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Then, use the discovery of omicron as an opportunity to look at the safety precautions you’ve been taking against the coronavirus in your own life, Koerth said. Are you and your loved ones vaccinated? Are you masking? Avoiding large crowds? Using rapid tests before large gatherings?

And have you gotten your vaccine booster shot? Scientists say booster shots could give people a little more protection against new variants like omicron by spurring the development of more varied antibodies, Koerth said.

How effective are the measures like travel restrictions at curbing the spread?

As for big-picture health policy, Koerth said that travel restrictions like those in place on South Africa have been found to be ineffective.

We don’t know where omicron originated, she said, but it has already spread all over the world. South Africa reported the discovery of omicron first because it has built a very robust COVID-19 surveillance system, and now, in Koerth’s view, we’re effectively punishing them for building that system.

What can be done to curb the development of more variants of the coronavirus? Koerth pointed to vaccine equity.

Many countries around the world have extremely low rates of vaccination in their populations because they have poor access to vaccines. Providing vaccines to those countries will reduce the spread of the coronavirus, which will reduce the chances that dangerous new mutations and variations of the virus emerge, said Koerth.

Koerth said that more concrete information and studies on omicron probably won’t come for several weeks.

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