There is another new COVID in town. Last summer it was delta and this winter it is omicron. At some point in the future it will be something else. New variants – and new “worrisome variants” – will continue to appear. And when they do, what should your to do?
Over Thanksgiving weekend, the world learned that the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had been identified by Africa’s intensive COVID-19 surveillance system. South. In fact, this particular variant was identified so early that no one knows much about it yet, other than the fact that it has 32 mutations in the spike protein, the part of the virus that allows it to infect patients. 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 he escape vaccination or previous infection? Is it transmissible? Where is he from ? It will be weeks before anyone has clear answers to these questions.
In the meantime, people all over the world know this thing exists and know that it has mutated in a way that scientists are concerned about, but don’t know what individuals can or should do about it. It is a stressful place. And it’s a place we’re almost certain to revisit.
Mutations occur every time viruses replicate. The more people who are infected, the more likely it is that random mutations will occur and that these mutations will turn out to be something that helps the virus to spread or survive. Only about 40 percent of the world’s population is fully immunized, and that number is far, far lower in countries that lack the money and infrastructure to purchase and distribute vaccines. There are 14 African countries where immunization rates are below 2 percent.
In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for new variations to appear. And they will. That is why we would like to take this opportunity to give you some tips on how to deal with news of a new variant.
1) breathe deeply
“I think there is really a balance. That we remain educated and understand that there is a potential new threat, while not giving up all hope, ”said Katelyn Jetelina, professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at the Center for Health Sciences at the ‘University of Texas at Houston. She said speaking to the public about the new variants of concern is about education and transparency, not instilling fear. The thing is over there. Scientists are working tirelessly to understand it better. And you deserve to know that there is something going on in the world of public health that could end up affecting you.
But just because something’s news doesn’t mean it’s a reason to panic. The Omicron – or any other variant – may not even be something everyone cares about within months of being detected.
2) assess your personal precautions
” I think [the announcement of a new variant of concern] now is the time for people to take a break and think about the way they go about their daily lives and the protections they have in place, ”said Dr. Sharon Wright, Head of Infection Control at Beth Israel Lahey Health in Boston. The good news here, she said, is that there are no surprises like when the novel coronavirus was discovered in 2019. You already know what to do to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19. Get vaccinated, if you are not. Immunize children, if they are not. Wear a mask in indoor public places, especially if they are crowded. Avoid busy indoor events. Use tools like quick tests to reduce the risk of taking something to a family reunion or party. These are the basics. If you are already doing them, so much the better. You don’t need to lock yourself in completely just because scientists are studying a worrying new variant. If you aren’t already doing these things, now is a good time to consider using more of these precautions in your life.
It’s also a good time to get a booster, said Wright and Jetelina. Booster vaccines have recently become available to all American adults, but there has been reasonable scientific debate over whether everyone really needs them. The appearance of omicron pushes this question into a “yes” for Jetelina. An existing vaccine booster will obviously not be optimized to protect against a variant that has just been discovered. But, said Jetelina, getting a booster could help your immune system not only temporarily produce more antibodies, but also produce a greater variety of antibodies that can bind together to recognize different parts of the virus. This would mean a greater chance that your immune system will recognize and attack even a highly mutated variant. It’s something scientists are still studying, but it’s a reason some scientists think boosters might be helpful even though your previous COVID-19 vaccines are still protecting you from serious illness.
3) Advocate for policies that really work
If it seems like there isn’t much that individuals can really do in response to a new variant of concern, it’s because there isn’t. This is a problem for scientists and politicians at this point. But it is important comment governments choose to respond. Travel bans have not been shown to prevent the spread of the disease and could backfire by punishing countries that have put in place the viral surveillance infrastructure necessary to quickly detect new variants.
What would be useful instead? Increased access to cheap rapid tests, Wright said, and Jetelina agreed. “Other countries have made rapid antigenic tests available free of charge… [they] aren’t perfect, but they’re a fantastic tool for surveillance, ”said Jetelina. Unfortunately, in the United States, these tests have remained expensive and are often out of stock. If the government finds a way to change this, it could make a real difference to public health.
The other big policy that could make a difference requires an international effort. We need better equity in vaccines, said Jetelina. Providing boosters and vaccines to our own people is great. But this will not prevent the formation of new variants while there are still places where more than 90% of the population is completely unvaccinated. No matter what happens with omicron, new variations will appear. But vaccine equity is the way to stop new variants before they start.