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Editorial: Omicron is here. Instead of panicking, let’s act to vaccinate everyone

A medical worker wears plastic gloves at a temporary screening clinic for the coronavirus in Seoul.
A medical worker wears plastic gloves at a temporary screening clinic for the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea on Monday. Scientists have warned for months that the coronavirus will thrive as long as vast parts of the world lack vaccines.
(Lee Jin-man / Associated Press)

It can be hard to remain calm when there’s yet another variant of the coronavirus, possibly even more transmissible than Delta, circulating in the United States. The first domestic case — an air passenger from South Africa — was reported in California on Wednesday, and several more have been confirmed since then. But let’s stay cool, for the moment anyway.

The spread of the Omicron variant is worth watching, but it does not yet signal a need for drastic measures such as shutting down schools or businesses or holing up inside. Yes, it’s troubling that the Omicron variant’s many mutations on the spike protein, the part of the virus that infects cells, may allow it to get past our current vaccines and lead to more infections. It is concerning also that it might be more resistant to treatment with monoclonal antibodies.

But at this point, we just don’t know enough to either relax or panic.

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Not all the early indications of this mutant’s behavior are frightening. There’s anecdotal information that infections with Omicron might be no more deadly than Delta and earlier strains, though the numbers of confirmed cases are too small and confined to a limited population for assurance on that. Hospitals in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, are reporting a big increase in COVID-19 patients, but they have not been overwhelmed. Some reports say that those hospitalized were mostly the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

We’re also in better shape to fight this shapeshifter coronavirus. It’s been a wearying roller-coaster ride since March 2020 — and let’s not forget that the Delta variant is still burdening the medical system in many corners of the nation — but we now know more about how the virus operates and how to minimize risk. Masks still help, without cramping our ability to get through the day. So does avoiding crowded indoor spaces. And of course, getting vaccinated is the most effective thing we can do to avoid serious illness.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that vaccinated people in South Africa were more likely to have mild cases than the unvaccinated. President Biden announced Thursday that public health experts believe that even if there are more breakthrough infections, the current vaccines will still help prevent hospitalization and death. Vaccine makers have said they can tailor upcoming vaccines to ward off Omicron more effectively, if needed.

At the moment, we should feel more frustrated than fearful because the leaders of the U.S. and other developed nations have failed to provide enough vaccine to developing countries, especially in Africa.

When the idea of booster shots in the U.S. was first floated, scientists said that we’d get a lot more bang for our vaccine buck by sending more doses overseas. Not only was that the humane thing to do, but it would benefit everyone. Viruses jump national and even continental borders with relative ease. Nearly 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated, but only 24% of South Africans are at this point — and the vaccination rate is much lower for other African countries. So far, only about 12% of the doses promised by the U.S., European Union and various countries to developing nations have been delivered. Also needed is help distributing donated doses; problems with timing and distribution have frustrated efforts to get more Africans vaccinated and resulted in precious doses being tossed.

Despite immediate and inaccurate attacks on Biden from leaders of the Republican Party, responding to Omicron is not a political issue. “More mandates, restrictions and fearmongering will not offset the empty words and broken promises from Biden’s failed administration,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said Thursday. But Biden has done none of that, other than to impose testing requirements on travelers from the nations most affected by Omicron. Instead, the president is doubling down on vaccines and testing.

What was missing from Biden’s new pandemic strategy was a commitment to helping get more vaccine doses into the arms of people in any area where woefully large numbers remain unprotected. The more the virus is allowed to circulate, the higher the likelihood of new mutations, especially in those with chronic infections, scientists say. That means we need to vaccinate the world. The threat from COVID-19 won’t end for Americans until it ends for everyone.


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