Wednesday night I lay in bed and thought to myself, “Hmmmm, nothing new happening in the Covid world! Maybe I won’t write a missive this week-end…”

Ah, the innocence. 

Because boom! Then it was Thursday and word ebbed out about a possible new variant. By Friday WHO met and announced that the wonderful scientists and testing infrastructure of South Africa had detected a new variant, and they had found it was in several other countries as well (no idea where it started) and they named it omicron (which is the Greek letter for “O” and not the name of a Transformer Toy), and by Saturday the fear-filled headline machine was in full throttle, so fierce and ferocious that now everyone is terrified again.

But the bottom line is we currently have NO IDEA what the omicron variant of SARS-SoV-2 may mean to our daily lives. It is way WAY too early to know if it is going to endanger us, end up in lockdowns, etc.

We have cases in the countries that are testing and a big rise in parts of South Africa. And given the interrconnectedness of our planet it’s inevitable it’s going to appear in other places including here as well. 

So we need to learn about it — not guess, not wonder, not estimate, not predict — we need to LEARN.

Right now all we have is these anecdotal cases, some mathematical models, and lots of conjecture.  We have some knowledge about the variant’s mutations and people have theories about how they might act.

But we don’t have data.

There are five critical questions that need to be answered about any variant:

  1. Can it be found with current testing?
  2. Is it more transmissible?
  3. Can it infect us if we are vaccinated? 
  4. Can it infect us if we’ve already had Covid?
  5. Does it cause more serious illness/is it more lethal?

Here’s the answers:

  1. Apparently yes
  2. Possibly yes
  3. We don’t know yet
  4. We don’t know yet
  5. We don’t know yet.

I feel like that TikTok: We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.

Why don’t we know?  Because there hasn’t been time for the patient data to accumulate. The first few cases were detected just over two weeks ago. They only started testing for it elsewhere a few days ago.

  • It will take us several days to figure out how common it is in other countries.
  • It will take a week or two to figure out how transmissible it is.
  • It will take us several weeks to learn about how often vaccinated or previously infected people get it and whether people get asymptomatic or mild disease. 
  • It will take several more weeks after that to know if the ensuing disease is more serious, or god forbid more lethal. 

Right now, everything written about the seriousness of omicron illness is conjecture.

We will not know where we stand until the data accumulates.

The moment the WHO called it a variant of concern and gave it a name, about 8 gabillion scientists got up from their dinner tables and cancelled their week-end plans and started working day and night on accumulating all that data.

They have to track who gets it, when, how long after exposure, with symptoms for how long, with what kind of symptoms, what kind of viral load in their noses, what kind of vaccines they got, who was boosted, what kind of antibody response, what kind of hospitalization rate, all that jazz. All that data.

Remember a few weeks ago when I described data as “patients with the tears washed away”?  That’s what we need here, along with data with “all the headlines washed away.” 

We are absolutely not going to have any answers about the role omicron is going to play in our lives for a few weeks. 

Given the ferocity of the media/internet reaction this week-end, it is probably a good time to revisit how often you are getting your Covid information and from what sources.  Some insanely scary extrapolations are being made in the lay media every hour.

——There is a widely quoted figure about omicron maybe being 500% more transmissible than earlier Covid.  It’s such a scary number — scary as can be — but it’s undoubtedly incorrect.  It’s based on tiny preliminary unvetted numbers and untried math models and it takes DATA — not models — to answer the basic question of “Am I more likely to get it?”  

—— The dire predictions about how omicron’s multiple mutations might act together in concert are scary but also not proven.  It’s like saying, “Okay, I’ll put my Ford engine on my Nissan transmission in my Corvette body and I will go win a Formula One race.”  What? Any race car driver knows that just because you put the parts together doesn’t mean they work together, much less work together better.  This is all speculation with NO DATA.

And speculation without data gives us nothing — nothing but anxiety.

I have spent part of this month in Civil War museums in Virginia. There are a number of reasons I’m interested in Civil War history; one is because I’m interested in how people deal with uncertainty.  “Learning to live with uncertainty” has always been part of my work with my cancer patients and lord knows it’s a huge part of our lives now.

So when I walk through these museums I think about how on earth people survived four solid years of suffering without knowing how long their misery would last, how many losses they would incur, whether they would ever recover, and even what the ultimate outcome would be.

One of the answers is that, like now, a lot of people DIDN’T cope well with those levels of uncertainty.  There was plenty of depression and “nervous exhaustion” and alcoholism and crime and suicide and domestic violence. 

And then, like now, faced with such uncontrollable calamities, people began to distrust the “mainstream” authorities and started going to spiritualists and cult physicians and quacks and taking no end of phony patent medicines (you should see the claims on the labels!) while inventing conspiracy theories. 

Wars and pandemics produce riptides of uncertainty and sometimes — like this month — all we can do is try to figure out how to cope with what I would call “uncertainty on steroids.”

We are going to have a lot about omicron figured out in the next few weeks.  By December 10 we’ll be much further along; before Christmas we will have a better idea if this is going to be a big or a little problem.

In the meantime…

Maybe it’s a good time to only read/listen to the news every other day.  Maybe it’s a good time to put the phone away a couple of hours before bed.  Maybe it’s time to keep the television news channels off and switch to some cooking show instead. 

Maybe it’s time to listen only to spokespeople who are exploring the science and not places exploding with fear-mongering.

Maybe it’s time to stop reading anything containing words like:

         “could mean” or “might mean”

         “scientists speculate”

         “researchers are concerned” or “might raise concerns”

         “preliminary evidence”

         “fears rise” or “it is feared that”

         or, for heaven’s sakes, “doomsday variant”

Omicron could go in any direction. It might be a disaster that sets us back big time. 

OR:  It could turn out to only spread in areas where there’s not much Delta. It might cause mild symptoms, or fewer symptoms. It might give a bunch of us a tiny case of Covid and no long haul issues. It might peeter out and stop being a bother like other variants did.  We might end up in a couple of months sneering about the “Big-O” variant that had everybody in a twist and never added up to much.

Or it could be a wakeup that we have got to get the whole world vaccinated, that a 6% African vaccination rate means there’s millions of unvaccinated bodies available to grow a variant.

Whatever happens, the one thing we know for sure right now is this:

Our science does not yet know what exactly is going to happen. 

But all those scientists who got up from their dinner tables and cancelled their week-end plans and went back into work the moment WHO called:  they will.