Thinking Like A Virus: Is Omicron Covid's Last Hurrah Or Will Xi’s Wuhan Gift Keep On Giving?

by R Jagannathan - Dec 6, 2021 06:25 AM
Thinking Like A Virus: Is Omicron Covid's Last Hurrah Or Will Xi’s Wuhan Gift Keep On Giving?Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Swarajya)
Snapshot
  • Whether Omicron turns out to be just an irritant or a serial killer of great magnitude, the world cannot avoid holding Xitler’s Jumping virus accountable for the damage it has done.

    But that’s another story, and the crime will probably go unpunished.

Will Omicron be Covid-19’s last hurrah, or will Xi Jinping’s Wuhan gift keep on giving? Will 2022 be another year in the grim fight against a virus that has ravaged the world since end-2019? Or will it signal the beginning of its end?

The virus and its mutants have already resulted in 266 million reported infections, and over 5.2 million deaths worldwide, both of which may be undercounts (get the latest details here). As at the end of Sunday (5 December), India has already reported 21 Omicron cases, and the numbers could spike vertically in the coming days.

We won’t have complete information on how the new mutant is spreading or the damage it is causing for some more weeks now, but a small detour into how the virus may be evolving could offer us some clues. As the world locked down, vaccinated and learnt to treat severe forms of Covid over the last two years, the virus has mutated faster to survive and find new and old hosts. The Omicron variant has revealed 32 mutations in the spike protein compared to Delta’s nine, which may mean it can infect more people who are either immuno-compromised or even those who are vaccinated. It has also been noted to be much more transmissible than Delta, possibly 3x-6x times.

But let’s, for a moment, ask ourselves what the virus may be trying to do. For one, it has a survival instinct like all living organisms, and its mutations must seek to make it more capable of survival than previous versions. If humans get more and more petrified, they will take more desperate measures to prevent it or seek even stronger vaccines. That cannot be good for the virus.

Secondly, if humans see the newest variant as little more than a seasonal nuisance that they can take in their stride, the chances of survival for the variant are much higher. Consider how much we have learned to live with the flu or even H1N1.

Thus far, Omicron has not led to anything more than mild symptoms and there have been no reported deaths so far (but it is too early to conclude this variant is benign). So, if Omicron learning to become a less dangerous, but a more infectious version of Covid, the question is whether it is learning to live and let live.

Logically, that is the way the virus should evolve, and at least one report – by JP Morgan Chase – is betting that this is what is happening. Two analysts, Marko Kolanovic and Bram Kaplan, have advised clients to buy stocks on dips. Their reasoning: since historical patterns of virus attacks show that as infections become more transmissible and the virus spreads faster, the newest kid on the block crowds out the earlier slow-coach mutants. If this is what’s happening, it could transform Omicron into a catalyst that would convert a pandemic into something as benign as the common flu, The Times of India notes, quoting the JP Morgan Chase report.

“If that scenario were to happen, instead of skipping two letters and naming it Omicron (to avoid naming Omicron as Xi), the WHO should have skipped all the way to Omega," which is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, says JP Morgan Chase.

If this report turns out to be correct, we may still have a reasonable 2022, though the world is already running scared, especially Europe. Whether Omicron turns out to be just an irritant or a serial killer of great magnitude, the world cannot avoid holding Xitler’s Jumping virus, which originated in Wuhan, accountable for the damage it has done. But that’s another story, and the crime will probably go unpunished. The world does not punish superpowers.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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