OMICRON: The Fine Line Between Caution and Causing Alarm

By Hannah Weir

Early last week, news emerged from scientists in South Africa of a new COVID-19 variant. Whilst it may have been wiser to hold our breath and wait for further information, with our respective timelines screaming about rising case numbers, the Déjà vu from this time last year crept up on us all. Despite this sinking feeling of “here we go again”, this rushing to the worst possible outcome being pushed by the global media felt needless. What we know so far doesn’t have to be the sequel to the apocalyptic horror movie we’ve come to know the script of.

Initial reports regarding Omicron described how this new variant was loaded with mutated qualities compared to the variants which came before it. Mutations, to the many of us who aren’t immunologists or scientists in any form, sound terrifyingly alien-like. According to a new report from the World Health Organisation, the variant has around 32 mutations in relation to the spike protein, and 10 new mutations regarding how it binds to our cells. Unfortunately, many outlets and arm-chair virologists took this unknown to mean we now faced unyielding devastation. Words like “deadlier” and “vaccine resistant” floated throughout the online spheres, followed in quick succession with “lockdown”, “Covid Christmas”.

Social Media has been strife with speculation around the new Omicron variant, BBC

Fortunately, Irish immunologist Professor Luke O’Neill amongst others placed some calming expertise on the issue. In short, we know we should expect to see new variants as time goes on. Whilst the virus gets better at its primary objective (i.e. infecting us more effectively to ensure its survival), it doesn’t necessarily have to be deadlier or stronger against vaccines.  It’s true that any given variant’s potential to transmit may increase its fatality, but these two factors are by no means inextricably linked. Future strains may have the ability to be more deadly, or less, or neither. The urge to pigeonhole new strains as more or less dangerous is premature and frankly beyond the remit and ability of the majority of the population. The pre-emptive reporting of the absolute worst case scenarios for clickbait simply preys on a population widely traumatised by an ongoing global pandemic. 

Being in a privileged, economically salient, and importantly, vaccinated part of the world, it seems almost distasteful that we would panic so viscerally when our propensity to deal with the circumstances is so much more than other parts of the world. At the peak of the wave brought on by the emergence of Delta, India reported 400,000 new infections and several thousand deaths in one day. As India is a nation with nearly one billion adults to vaccinate, complaints regarding the UK government’s reintroduction to mask wearing and travel restrictions this week seems nearly trivial. Despite this, we’ve seen the NI news cycle plagued by the news of overrun hospitals, Health Trusts asking the public to avoid A&E. We’ve become accustomed to the doom and gloom on a localised and globalised scale, perhaps it’s a little too familiar to lean into the absolute lowest of expectations.  

Of the certainties and uncertainties the pandemic has brought us, watching our leaders scramble for publicly palatable solutions for a lockdown-fatigued population is a dance we now know well. Recent years have shown public discourse on government competency is heightened as ever. Surely, it’s encouraging to see leaders were willing to take some form of mitigation measures in a relatively fast time frame light of Omicron- more so than closing their eyes and putting their fingers in their ears. The key our politicians seem to be missing, is a sustainable long-term plan for mitigating new variants’ effects, rather than jumping to “will they wont they” measures which inevitably detriment the already hurting hospitality arts and culture industries. 

Mishandled information and unclear public messaging regarding the new variant would only bolster the narratives peddled by COVID deniers and anti vaxxers. These groups, alongside those with broader and tangential concerns around the new introduction of COVID passports, continue to gather outside City Hall in growing numbers as we saw only a few weeks ago. Denial and conspiracy is founded on casting doubt. The nature of science and scientific research is not to provide absolute concrete proof, but a robustness in that said scientific activity that leaves us with confidence in the knowledge being presented. This of course, leaves these findings vulnerable to contortion and pushback.  Scientific robustness and margins of error do not always translate well into the public realm.  The nature of scientific research, despite what we’re told, is not to provide absolute truth but to provide certainty within margins of error. Models and research are taken from samples, samples can only be inferential of populations. 

The margin of error is there, and its existence, however minor,  is the uncertainty that leaves scientific translation into more digestible terms vulnerable to deepening and widening. Omicron and our lack of knowledge about it, the panic that it quickly creates, demonstrates the gaps we need to bridge in terms of making scientific information more digestible and less open to clickbait and scaremongering. So far, cases of the variant in the EU are demonstrating mild symptoms. Whilst it’s not quite the end to 2021 we’d hoped for, it may not be the nightmare conclusion we so easily and understandably  jumped to. 

Editorial Note

Readers may have noticed we haven’t shied away from taking a stance on issues here at the Gown Newspaper. Whilst the topic of vaccines has become somewhat contentious over the past two years, The Gown would like to encourage all of our readers to get vaccinated. Vaccinations should never be compulsory, but that does not mean they shouldn’t be embraced. We respect that some of our readers will be opposed to taking the vaccine, but nevertheless we will continue to encourage the use of vaccines in battling the coronavirus.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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