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The Governments' Responses Towards the Omicron Variant are Over the Top

By LateToTheParty | Late to the Pol | 9 Dec 2021

Co-published on


On November 24, 2021, the Omicron variant was reported to the World Health Organization as the latest strain. The strain contains 26 amino acid mutations that render its spike protein significantly different from previous variants. In response, governments around the world began to impose travel restrictions from South Africa and other African countries. A few European countries like Austria imposed lockdowns or restrictions on what people could do outside. However, these measures were met with a lot of criticisms for overreaction.

South Africa Health Minister, Joe Phaahla, was unhappy with the travel restrictions. He explained that these measures will negatively affect the country's economy, particularly the tourism industry. Meanwhile, in Europe, anti-lockdown riots have broken out in nations like Belgium.

The question is were these measures necessary to begin with? While the Omicron variant is more transmissible than even the Delta variant, that does not necessarily mean it is more virulent. A virus (or a pathogen, in general) can mutate into a strain that is more easy to spread, but those same mutations may also make the strain less deadly.

Evolutionary Pressure on Pathogens

Take cholera as an example. Normally, cholera is a very deadly disease as it can cause severe diarrhea and consequently, severe dehydration. However, a mild version of cholera exists of which the symptoms are also mild. This is due to evolutionary pressure imposed on the pathogen when a population has access to purified water. Cholera thrives in untreated sewage. Under the presence of good water treatment systems, it is more beneficial for cholera to not instantly kill its hosts. Over time, the pathogen evolves to not be as deadly so it has a better chance of transmitting from person to person.

There is a possibility that this same phenomenon is happening with SARS-COV-2. As more and more people grow immune to the virus either through natural infection or vaccination, there is an evolutionary pressure on the virus to mutate into variants that are more transmissible. However, in doing so, these mutations can also affect the virus's other traits such as its deadliness.



Early Signs Suggest the Omicron Variant is Mild

In an interview with Reuters, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, explained that "most [patients] are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries". She added that "the most predominant clinical complaint is severe fatigue for one or two days. With them, the headache and the body aches and pain". The doctor concluded that based on her observations, the travel restrictions were unwarranted.

A report from the Steve Biko Academic and Tshwane District Hospital Complex in Pretoria also hinted at the Omicron variant's mildness. Of the 42 patients observed, 70% were not oxygen dependent. On top of that, 4 patients were on oxygen for reasons unrelated to SARS-COV-2. The report also observed that while cases rose dramatically, the number of deaths remained flat, suggesting that the case fatality rate is much lower than previous variants.


Deaths may still possibly rise, but so far, the death curve has yet to rise along with the cases curve like the last 3 times.

The Omicron Variant is More Cold-like than Previous Strains

Lastly, pre-print study from Venkatakrishnan et al. (2021), found out through single cell RNA-sequencing data that the Omicron variant contains a sequence from the common cold virus, i.e. HCoV-229E. The study explains that when an individual is simultaneous infected by SARS-COV-2 and the cold, by chance, the SARS-COV-2 virus picks up a sequence from the cold virus through what is called template switching.


Figure 2 from Venkatakrishnan et al. (2021)

As a result of template switching, SARS-COV-2 has gained the ins214EPE sequence from HCoV-229E and therefore, some amino acid traits of the common cold. It is possible that as a result of inheriting cold-like traits, the Omicron variant is less deadly than previous strains. Of course, this research is just the beginning and more data is needed for a more definitive conclusion.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, I find the governments' reactions to the Omicron variant way over the top. While it is true that it is more transmissible, there are multiple signs that suggest it is milder than previous strains. Based on a pre-print study, the Omicron variant gained an amino acid sequence from the common cold virus which may have played a role in its less severe virulence.

Travel restrictions and lockdowns come with a lot of consequences as we have seen in 2020. Small businesses take a huge hit as a result of less foot traffic and revenue. That will, in turn, negatively affect the business owners and employees downstream. As I already mentioned at the beginning, the travel restrictions are hitting South Africa's tourism industry rather hard.

Of course, there needs to be more research into the Omicron variant. However, I think a "Watch and research intently, then react" approach is more sensible than an "Overreact now and figure things out later" approach.

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Agnostic classical liberal & fiscal conservative who likes anime, JRPGs, and Linux. You can also follow me on, and

Late to the Pol
Late to the Pol

My political commentary and opinions are all found here. May or may not involve falling up the stairs, falling off a stationary bike, or shaking hands with ghosts.

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