Already battling another surge in the pandemic, stressed and fatigued Europe must stay vigilant about the newest threat, the highly mutated Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus now detected in a number of countries.
Hopes were high last summer that Europe could enjoy some return to normalcy, but by autumn that optimism — or just plain hope — was largely abandoned as rising case numbers led to renewed lockdowns. Then came the disheartening news that yet another variant of the virus, first detected in southern Africa, had already arrived in Europe.
Though not enough is yet known about Omicron, it is a serious enough potential threat that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled it “of concern”, signalling a high level of worry in its understated ranking system that seems designed to tamp down alarmist fears. And that is something else we should have already learned: don’t underplay the threat. In an attempt to quell potential panic, health officials could have overly minimised the original threat that emerged almost two years ago. So this time, let’s raise the alarm and keep the bell tolling until people get the message.
The night the WHO expressed its concern a large group of partygoers was in the street near our home shouting so loud they could be heard a block away. One could easily imagine the droplets dancing in the air as the unmasked group embraced, talked loudly in each other’s faces, and enjoyed their revelry. At such times one wonders if we all are getting the same information. Why don’t the facts penetrate? Even before Omicron, infections and the death toll were again soaring in Italy, leading to the re-imposition of restrictions, including face masks, a few days before.
Similar scenes have played out in the past two years, no doubt, but not only in Italy. Over the weekend, the Netherlands struggled to test for the Omicron variant in arrivals at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport — discovering many air travellers have it — but just a week before violent Dutch protesters had taken to the streets to oppose a new lockdown. News reports arrive daily describing resistance to vaccines, masks or other measures in Western democracies. Yet these are the very countries now experiencing the worst outbreaks.
Last week, the EU agreed to temporarily halt air travel from southern African countries to limit the spread of the new variant that was first detected and sequenced in Botswana on November 11 and Pretoria, South Africa.
Belgium registered the first Omicron case in Europe, a woman not travelling from South Africa but Egypt via Turkey. Also the first Italian case, a businessman from Caserta, currently in good condition, didn’t travel from South Africa but from Mozambique. Other cases have since been reported in more European nations, Germany included.
Italian virologist Roberto Burioni claims the new variant was already circulating three months ago in the heavily populated Gauteng, a province in South Africa. It seems evident that Omicron could rapidly converge on central Europe through air travel, even with flights coming from other directions.
But how dangerous is Omicron? Dr Angelique Coetzee in South Africa, one of the first doctors to suspect a different strain had emerged, said patients she saw starting in mid-November had “very mild” symptoms. Dr Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner in the US Food and Drug Administration, noted the anecdotal description but warned against downplaying the threat. “The original clusters were among young people” who could presumably better cope with the virus, he told US news programmes.
Giorgio Palù, microbiology and virology professor at the University of Padua and president of AIFA, the Italian Medicines Agency, says that “from a virological perspective, to understand how much this new variant will affect the pandemic, we need accurate analyses in the lab, not a computer prediction”.
“Lab experiments lasting a few days will tell us if the antibodies in the vaccinated can stop even this variant, as I think they do,” Palù says. “At the moment, we suspect it is more transmissible, but we do not know the virulence level.”
At this point perhaps we should adopt the Socratic paradox: I know I know nothing. We should suspend judgment and give scientists a few days or weeks to understand more. In the meantime, we should do “epoché” like the ancient Pyronnist philosophers who sought suspension of judgment as a way of achieving ataraxia, tranquillity of mind, and freedom from anxiety.
Quickly spreading fear has already had consequences with global declines on stock exchanges.
Swift action in suspended flights, closures and lockdowns is the correct response even if the measures ultimately prove unnecessary. Precautions have relatively low economic and social costs and can easily be scaled back, but the delay could increase the risk of a severe outbreak.
Whatever the latest development, the same clarion call is repeated by leaders and experts: “It is time for more vaccinations and booster shots,” says European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
And not just in developed countries. Europe and the rest of the world are finding that the unvaccinated in a far distant land can unwittingly help the virus mutate, so in addition to the clear humanitarian urgency, the unvaccinated on any continent become a local problem in Europe as well.
The dedication of medical experts and scientists is admirable, but the rest of us need to do our part and follow their guidance. We are all responsible.
Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are veteran international journalists in Milan
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