‘Premature’ to sound the alarm over Omicron variant: experts

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COVID-19 experts say it is “premature” to sound the alarm over the new Omicron variant until more is known about the strain — warning that overblowing concerns about it could badly backfire.

“Reacting to a new variant, especially this one, is probably premature, especially since it seems that there’s no evidence that it’s actually worse” than any other strain, said Dr. Michael Blaivas, chief medical officer of Anavasi Diagnostics, to The Post.

There are still many unknowns about Omicron, which has caused a surge in cases in South Africa, where it was first detected by scientists, experts said.

“We don’t know the full scope of the significance of it yet,” said Dr. Martine Hackett, who is the director of public health programs at Johns Hopkins University.

“I think that we have to be mindful that this is going to be an ongoing process for us, as new variants do come up, [and] for us to be patient and cautious but also not completely a downer about it.”

While countries such as Japan and Israel have already closed their borders over the variant, experts said there may be less to fear this time than when the highly contagious Delta variant spread during the last wave, thanks to current higher vaccination rates.

People on line at an airport in Cape Town, South Africa — where the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was discovered.
People on line at an airport in Cape Town, South Africa — where the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was discovered.
Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

“Unlike previous times, there’s even more reason to stay calm and really reasonable,” Blaivas said. “Those [reasons] include the fact that we have more experience with coronavirus now as a world, the planet, individual countries.”

Blaivas warned that health officials may cause distrust with the public if fears of Omicron are overblown.

“One of the problems that people will run into is, how often can they cry wolf and still get the public to react,” he said.

“What we risk is that next time more people will say, ‘Oh, that’s what they told us last time. We don’t have to worry about all these things. I’m not going to protect myself as suggested.’ And then we actually put the public at risk because the next version might be worse.”

It is still unclear whether the current COVID-19 vaccines provide enough protection against the variant, which is believed to have a “record” number of mutations in its spike protein that binds to human cells.

Experts have said more research is necessary to determine whether Omicron causes more severe illness, though the South African doctor who identified some of the first cases of the variant said symptoms are “unusual but mild” in healthy patients.

Dr. Anthony Santella, a professor of public health at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, told The Post that it’s too early to tell whether it will become a dominant strain or fall of the global radar.

A man getting tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa amid the discovery of the Omicron variant.
A man getting tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa amid the discovery of the Omicron variant.
AP Photo/Jerome Delay

“In the past, some [variants] have and some haven’t, so to kind of sound the alarm bells right now is a bit premature, in my opinion,” he said.

Santella said he believes that “government officials probably see this as an opportunity to kind of scare people straight a little bit, particularly those who remain unvaccinated or not compliant with like masking and other ordinances.”

He added that the early warnings about the variant may have been a public messaging strategy, so that there is no state of panic if the pandemic gets worse again and stricter measures, such as reducing capacity in public spaces, become necessary.

“If [officials] just [instituted mandates again] spontaneously, there would be a lot of civil unrest around that. This is their way of kind of giving people a heads up of what may happen,” he said.

Experts encouraged people to continue following public health guidance, such as wearing their masks in crowded spaces and washing their hands as well as getting vaccinated against the virus.

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