My first thought upon hearing that there’s a new, far-more contagious variant emerging was, “Great… finally.”
Given the world’s sudden panic with respect to it, I guess I should clarify. I’m not some Evil Overlord awaiting the demise of humanity; quite the opposite. So… here’s what comes to mind…
Let’s rewind to the beginning of the pandemic. But no, not this one… the big one a long time ago. And no, not that one either… I’m not talking about the 1918-1919 Spanish flu. Let’s jump further back… and arrive at the 1889-1890 Russian flu pandemic. That pandemic killed around a million people out of a world population of 1.5 billion… roughly 0.7% of everyone which, if you map it to today’s world population, would be a death toll of over 5 million… a number which, unfortunately, has already been far-exceeded by Covid-19.
That flu epidemic has been studied ever since, and it certainly got a closer look in 1918, when scientists were trying to figure out what they were dealing with. As it turns out, after a century of research, with scientists all-along trying to shoehorn in what sort of flu virus that might have been (because nothing made perfect sense, and nothing really fit), a simpler explanation has recently come to light… and it’s become evident that the Russian flu pandemic wasn’t actually the flu after all. It was… yeah, you guessed it.
This sort of retro-science is obviously much easier in hindsight… indeed, that’s the only way to do it… so when you read about the symptoms of that ancient pandemic these days, and read about the high fever, chest inflammation, respiratory issues, killing predominantly older people, loss of taste and smell… yes, it does all sound somewhat familiar… and it’s not the flu.
As it turns out, the great Russian flu pandemic was actually caused by a coronavirus strain labelled OC43, one that has been found to have jumped into the human population exactly around 1890… and it certainly hit the ground running, infecting and killing countless people.
But here’s an interesting fact, 130 years later… OC43 is one of the leading causes of… the common cold. Has it gotten weaker over the years? Is it now more contagious but less virulent? Are we just more immune to it? Did we acquire some of that immunity from our parents? Are treatments more common and accessible to the extent that it’s no longer a big deal?
Yes – to all of the above. It’s just a common cold. We’ve all been dealing with it all our lives, and it’s generally – the vast majority of the time — not a big deal.
For virus like OC43 to go from killing close to 1% of the population to being no big deal took over a century. These days, we’re not interested in waiting that long. We have nowhere near the attention span. The sort of mindset that demands we be able to binge-watch an entire seven seasons of some show during three days of lockdown is the same mindset that insists everything, including pandemics, be dealt with in a quick and efficient manner.
Nature doesn’t really care what we think, so we simply have to take what we can get… but what we’re getting, as per my opening paragraph is, in my opinion, cautiously optimistic.
Like a common cold, we’re all going to come into contact with it. Everyone scrambling to close their borders? It’s a nice theatrical exercise, but the truth is that the Omicron variant is probably already here. Where’s here? Exactly. Everywhere. Watch for cases to start rising dramatically… everywhere.
And is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Cases will go up, but far-more-importantly, will hospitalizations? ICU admissions? Deaths?
I won’t go out of my way (yet) to say it’s all a good thing, but there’s one potentially very positive version of this: That this is the virus’s end-game. That this is where it gets a lot more contagious and a lot less virulent. Indeed, if we start getting data that this thing spreads like wildfire but causes only mild symptoms, we’re actually well on our way out of this mess… on a global scale. While it’s still too early to say for certain, initial indications imply a milder disease. While Delta cases cause elevated pulse rates, low oxygen levels and the loss of taste and smell, Omicron cases seem to cause different symptoms: Fatigue, head and body aches, and occasional sore throats and coughs.
And if that’s the extent of it – what sounds like nothing more than a common cold – and if it’s so virulent that we all get it and, with that, develop antibodies against the underlying C19… mission accomplished. Problem solved.
It’s interesting that this variant was first identified in South Africa.
On a somewhat related noted, it’s interesting to note that for the most part, the entire continent of Africa bypassed conventional telephone lines. It just wasn’t worth it to wire the entire country. They missed out on decades of the benefits of telephones in every household… but they’re making up for it now. Cellular infrastructure has arrived and, with it, internet and apps and everything that comes with it. They missed telephony the first time around, but thanks to leapfrogging technology, are pretty-much caught up. They’re exactly where you and I are with mobile phones, and, given how much we pay for cell service around here, probably a bit ahead. They leapfrogged into the cellular age… and they may end up leapfrogging vaccines.
The pathetic vaccination rates in Africa (not because they don’t want it, but because it just hasn’t been made available) might quickly become as irrelevant as an old Bell telephone (you know, the old ones… the ones where you could deliciously slam down the receiver in frustration) – because the prevalence of a mild and very-contagious version of this virus might finally be the thing to slam it out of existence. Africa may immunize themselves out of the pandemic by simply infecting each other with a much milder strain. And if that turns out to be the case, it won’t just be Africa; it’ll be everywhere.
I sincerely hope I’m not completely wrong. It’ll take a bit of time to confirm (or shoot down) some of these assumptions.., but I think it’s fair to put out there that there’s a version of this doom and gloom that’s not so gloomy and doomy. Far from it. The news that initially sent the world into a panic and markets tumbling and airports shutting down flights… might turn out to be a significant positive turning point.