If you didn’t spend the Thanksgiving holiday weekend glued to the news, you might be confused as to the origins of a global panic over a new COVID variant that spread rapidly even for this highly transmissible disease. That confusion is probably deepened because the panic is already subsiding as those less inclined to mass hysteria join the conversation.
Late Thursday evening, what was still only known as the B.1.1.529 variant became the subject of a dire all-points bulletin via the World Health Organization. The mutation, first detected in South Africa, has the potential to spread more quickly and could evade the protections provided by both natural and vaccine-provided antibodies, the group warned. With that, the world descended into a state of paralytic alarm.
Global markets collapsed. U.S. stock indexes suffered their biggest one-day percentage decline since February. The United States raced to impose a travel ban on a handful of African nations believed to have incubated this “variant of concern” effective Monday, though cases were soon detected in Western Europe and Canada. America joined 44 countries restricting travel from Sub-Saharan Africa, while nations such as Japan, Morocco, and Israel blocked foreign nationals from entering their borders altogether. New York’s Gov. Kathy Hochul preemptively suspended elective surgeries for the first time since 2020 in anticipation of a “spike” of new hospitalizations.
By Sunday, this new COVID anomaly had a name, “Omicron,” and U.S. officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci were warning that a new round of lockdowns could be necessary to prevent its spread. It “may not actually be a big deal,” he said, “but we want to make sure that we’re prepared for the worst.”
If all you had heard about this new iteration of COVID was the apoplectic tone of the coverage around it, Fauci’s words sound prudent enough. By Sunday, however, hints of skepticism began to creep into the coverage of the variant. After all, what we don’t know about it is as much cause for concern as it is for cautious optimism.
The chair of South Africa’s Medical Association, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, told the BBC that the globe was “panicking unnecessarily.” The Omicron patients she has had first-hand experience with presented “very, very mild symptoms.” None required dramatic interventions, and all were treated “conservatively at home.” South Africa’s Health Minister Dr. Joe Phaahla confirmed that the “majority” of Omicron infections they’re “seeing are mild.”
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of Israel’s public health services, came to a similar conclusion—Omicron spreads “very, very fast,” but its spread has not yet been accompanied by worse outcomes for infected patients. “If it continues this way,” one Israeli coronavirus expert said, “this might be a relatively mild illness compared to the delta variant, and paradoxically, if it takes over, it will lead to lower infection rates.”
There is reason to be concerned by this variant. Its mutations could allow it to circumvent the protections provided by immunization or natural infection, but there is no evidence yet that it will evade those protections. Indeed, as University of California San Francisco virologist, Dr. Monica Gandhi told the Dispatch, “It’s really hard for a variant to become more transmissible and more virulent.” South Africa’s specialists are only relating anecdotes, not clinical data. But the anecdotes are not just all we have; they’re promising.
By the weekend’s end, a correction was underway. “We know almost nothing about the Omicron variant,” read the headline in the Atlantic. Omicron may be transmissible, but “it has a long way to go to take over from Delta,” CNN reported. “And the long list of variants that at first frightened the world before falling off the map can be a reminder that viruses are unpredictable.” The WHO sounded a similar note of overdue caution. “There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants,” a Sunday statement out of the organization read. “It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible” than its predecessors. “There’s no reason to panic,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told CNN on Sunday morning, “but it’s a great reason to get boosted.” President Joe Biden did his best to relieve the stress that overtook opinion-makers on Monday. “We’re going to fight and beat this new variant today,” he said. But “not with shutdowns or lockdowns.” Biden stressed that “this variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
But there was a panic. And if you have investments in the market or need crucial elective surgeries in the state of New York, it was a damaging one. Why was panic the default response of so much of the news-consuming world over the weekend? And why have sobriety and circumspection now returned to both media and markets? In part because panic has become a lifestyle choice among an influential few.
The revivification of COVID as an acute emergency led some particularly active communicators to retreat into the comfort of existential dread. Of this, one instructive Twitter thread produced by Boston University School of Public Health Associate Professor Dr. Ellie Murray was indicative. Yes, she wrote, we must continue to promote vaccines, disseminate rapid tests, and approve promising therapeutics. But we must also restore masking mandates, prepare for business closures, provide paid pandemic furloughs, legislate a constitutionally viable moratorium on evictions, force airlines to absorb the cost associated with socially distanced flights, take all winter social gatherings outside, and develop “clear triggers to switch to hybrid or remote” learning in schools.
That is a lot of confidence to assign to these mitigation measures when there is almost no confidence in the newly identified threat they are supposedly designed to mitigate against. There may yet come a time to panic over the emergence of this or future COVID mutations, but that time is not now. This sort of display is explicable only as a psychological orientation, not a considered response to a two-year-old public health crisis. Those who exhibit this peculiar orientation have outsized influence over the national discourse. As the weekend’s anxiety suggests, it isn’t helping.