There are reasons to hope this COVID-19 variant won't be too disruptive, but also reasons to be careful.
The world has been losing its collective marbles about the COVID-19 Omicron variant for a few days, with stock markets zigzagging, gas prices dropping drastically and many countries imposing sudden travel restrictions.
So what do experts say should happen now?
In a nutshell, the Omicron variant is too new for scientists to make definitive statements about it. This means, experts say, we should be careful and practice the public health measures that have been recommended through most of the pandemic — but we shouldn’t overreact at this point.
First spotted in South Africa, the Omicron variant is reported to be the main driver of a wave of cases in that country. Salim Abdool Karim, a leading South African epidemiologist, was quoted in The New York Times saying that "no red flags" have been raised in relation to the new variant.
In a statement published on November 27, the South African foreign ministry said that travel restrictions to the country are "akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker."
"Excellent science should be applauded and not punished."
Still, early analysis suggests Omicron is quite infectious — similar to the Delta variant, said Dr. Mark Goldberg, an environmental epidemiologist and professor in the department of medicine at McGill University, in an email to MTL Blog. But, he wrote, many other details are unclear right now.
"That we have seen it in many countries does not imply it is worse than Delta," Goldberg wrote. "We do not know whether it causes more severe disease, nor do we know whether there will be more breakthrough infections in the vaccinated."
Given the current unknowns, according to Université de Montréal professor and research director Dr. Janusz Kaczorowski, "The best advice is to be cautious and continue with the current public health measures and vaccination campaigns to prevent spread and impact of Omicron."
Both Goldberg and Kaczorowski supported travel restrictions, but Goldberg said testing travellers as they enter the country — "even the vaccinated" — would help give health officials more time to prepare if Omicron proves to be a bigger problem.
"My concern, given the fact that [the Public Health Agency of Canada] consistently misses the mark, is that we will not act fast enough," Goldberg wrote.
With the Omicron variant now detected in Quebec, Health Minister Christian Dubé explained that provincial health experts are looking into whether the new variant is resisting vaccines and whether it is more contagious than other variants.
While experts concur that the new variant shouldn’t be a cause for panic, Quebec is remaining on alert and is imploring unvaccinated people to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
"What else to do?" Goldberg asked. "The same as before: wear masks, keep one’s distance, don’t congregate with unvaccinated people, and those people who have not been vaccinated — they need to. There is just no excuse not to be unless one reacts badly to these vaccines: they are safe and effective, and have proven to be highly effective even against Delta."
Health Canada has a robust website with all the latest information on COVID-19 vaccines and can answer any questions you may have.
This article’s cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.
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