New Variant on the Block
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
By now, you know, we have a new arrival in the pandemic landscape. Omicron, and you also probably know that's about all we know.
ANDERSON COOPER So what is your message tonight? Do we know enough yet about Omicron to be specific about really anything? No, actually, Anderson, we don't. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The lack of information was followed on Wednesday by the sound of the inevitable shoe dropping.
NEWS REPORT We have discovered our first case not only here in San Francisco, but the entire country. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Omicron is in the building and after the wave of crises and cases wraught by Delta, it's no surprise that the phrase 'new variant' creeps you out. You may wonder, what does this mean for me? From my holiday plans... For humanity? And so to help make sense of the mutations and the mystery, we bring you our latest Breaking News Consumers Handbook: Variant Edition. The scientific community is now pretty well prepared to assess variants. We asked Catherine J. Wu, staff writer for The Atlantic, who covers science, if the media were ready to.
KATHERINE J WU I will start and end with the good because it's always nice to sandwich the bad. But no, I mean, I think it's been extraordinary to see how quickly both the scientific and the science journalism community have responded to this news. And you know, I've seen many of my colleagues really work hard to cover this responsibly, inject nuance wherever they can. And I have so, so, so appreciated whenever journalists have been unafraid to say, 'we don't know.' It's not always the most satisfying to read, and certainly not the most satisfying thing to put in a headline. But it is the reality. That said, you know, I think where the coverage has gone wrong is we've kind of veered away from what we do and don't know. It's OK to sort of put forth 'here's what scientists are discussing, here's what's possible, here's what we'll be looking for,' but there's another tier of that what we can call wild speculation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so give me some specifics in the coverage that have made you cringe. Or at least, you know, crinkle your eyebrows.
KATHERINE J WU I was a little frustrated to see some folks being quoted saying, This is a whole new pandemic. We're starting over from scratch. You know, the vaccines could be rendered obsolete. Those are really, really strong statements with really scary implications for a public that is exhausted from two years of crisis and uncertainty and heading into winter when we know more people are gathering. And it really does no one any good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But is it wrong?
KATHERINE J WU Arguably some of that, I think, is wrong. I think when we say something like, you know, the vaccines will be rendered totally obsolete or useless, it really does make it sound like we are putting people back at square one. That's absolutely not going to be the case. This new variant, Omicron, it is a new variant, but it's not a completely new virus. It's not a pigeon transforming into a tiger. It's a pigeon that's maybe grown a mustache. It might be a little harder to recognize, but that does not mean that we're completely invalidating everything we've put in place so far. A way to frame this a little more responsibly is to say yes, we have a new variant that might erode some of the effectiveness of our vaccines, but not embrace it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the notion that this could be a whole new thing is wrong. Is that partly based on the fact that the word mutation itself is so scary? So if it's 30 mutations, it's 30 times scarier?
KATHERINE J WU Yeah, the word mutant and the word mutation, these are two terms that certainly are very loaded. They have sort of cultural and colloquial meanings. But in science, a mutation is sort of akin to a typo. Think about, you know, bodies of text. Sometimes typos are not a big deal. The word is still completely recognizable. Sometimes that makes the word harder to understand or changes the words meaning completely. But in much the same way, mutations in biology can be totally inconsequential. They can benefit the virus, or they can actively harm the virus. And until we really do those studies, we don't know what those 50 some mutations are actually going to do for Omicron.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said there are three key metrics we need to gauge in the face of a new variant. And those are the things that need to be preeminent in the coverage. Could you walk us through what we know about those three metrics, starting with number one, how quickly the variant spreads?
KATHERINE J WU This is a pretty important one. Viruses don't really want anything, but if they did want something, it would be to spread and to spread fast. And so this is what scientists are watching for right now. They're watching to see, you know, in most places in the world, Delta is the predominant variant. If Omicron is a better spreader than Delta, we can expect it to outcompete Delta, even within individual people we'll see this variant copying itself faster and just basically outpacing its competitor. That could cause problems if it has other traits that cause us issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The next one is is it capable of causing more serious disease than what we've previously encountered?
KATHERINE J WU This is a really difficult trait to pin down because the severity of disease that a variant causes it is not just about the virus, it's also about us diseases and interaction between host and pathogen. And even a pathogen is kind of wilier and packs a bigger punch. If it meets a really resilient host or a really young and feisty host, maybe it won't hurt that person so much. So when scientists are trying to study this, they also have to think about, OK, are the populations that these variants are infecting or are they comparable? You know, was one vaccinated? Is one younger? Does one have more access to treatments? Are hospitals super full in this area? You know, you can think of all the sort of confounding variables that make those comparisons just so difficult to make. And it also depends on what we're worried about, right? Death and serious disease are not the only metrics. We're also thinking about long COVID and the other debilitating symptoms that people can experience, so that metric, it's such a thorny question, but it's also something that scientists are trying to pay attention to right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The final one is whether it might be able to circumvent the immune protection left behind by past SARS-CoV-2 infections or COVID 19 vaccines, or whether it could evade immune focused treatments such as monoclonal antibodies.
KATHERINE J WU This is some of the data that will reach us the soonest, because vaccine makers and independent researchers are already taking blood from vaccinated and previously infected individuals and seeing if the antibodies in there can still block Omicron from getting inside of cells in petri dishes in the lab. That's not the entire picture of immune response, but it is a strong indication of one large component, and I think there are some predictions already trickling out and it comes back to, you know, our pigeon with a mustache idea. You know, once a pigeon dons a disguise like that, it is going to be a little bit less recognizable to certain members of the immune system. I think there's room for optimism here because certain parts of our immune system are way more resilient and flexible to mutation. And I think in my mind, no way that we are going to plummet to zero protection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The coverage often references the W.H.O. labeling Omicron as a 'variant of concern,' like the FBI would call someone a person of concern. That title is, you know, concerning, but it's also vague. Could you explain what it means?
KATHERINE J WU So I think the first thing to know is that the W.H.O. has four designations for variants, and a variant of concern is kind of tier three out of four. Nothing has yet actually ascended to the highest level, which is a variant of high consequence. But it is important to keep in mind that Omicron has moved past being just a variant under monitoring, which is the first one and a variant of interest, which is Tier two. A variant of concern is what the W.H.O. designates a variant for which there is evidence or high likelihood that it's either going to be more transmissible, more deadly or more evasive of vaccines or therapeutics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So they have enough data to at least come to the conclusion that it'll be one of those three?
KATHERINE J WU It's interesting. This is actually a contested point. There are some experts out there that say maybe we shouldn't have labeled this a variant of concern quite yet because we don't have the data 100 percent confirming that. We have high suspicion all around based on the information we have about Omicron's mutations, but we haven't actually seen the evidence. So oh, it's tough. I understand why the W.H.O. may have done this. It's certainly put a label on this variant that made people react quickly and maybe this variant will be demoted. That is totally possible. Maybe it will not be the big deal that some worry it could be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where would the earnest layperson find out about those things that we really want to know? Especially those big metrics about transmissibility, severity and vaccine resistance? Where do we go to make sure we have it up to the minute, and in context?
KATHERINE J WU This data is going to come out piecemeal and it's going to take a lot of hard work and attention to synthesize that data quickly. We're going to learn about some of those traits much faster than others. I think the World Health Organization and the CDC have already both done a really great job of keeping the public up to date, the World Health Organization has been issuing regular updates on Omicron, as well as other variants when necessary. And they've already laid out, you know, these are the three metrics for monitoring. Again, that's transmissibility, disease severity and immune evasiveness. And I think they're going to be carefully categorizing their updates so that they tell the public 'here is the metric that this new update could affect,' 'here's where you should sort of file this information.' It's not always going to be that clear cut, but it's actually been, I think, really nice to see so far how closely people have been paying attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when do you think we'll begin to get a clearer idea about transmissibility? Severity? Vaccine resistance?
KATHERINE J WU I think we are going to start to see hints of those answers within a couple weeks. And I think one of the clearest timelines to think about is the vaccine effectiveness question. Because we kind of know how those experiments have to go. Scientists right now are either growing up this virus in the lab or engineering little versions of other viruses to look like Omicron and then testing to see whether those viruses can be blocked by antibodies in petri dishes in the lab so that it won't infect cells anymore. That's going to give us our first sense of how well vaccinated people or COVID recovered people are going to fend off Omicron, and we'll really start to see that, I think, within a couple weeks. We're also really just waiting on a lot of epidemiologic data. We're waiting to see who has caught this variant and how they're faring. And whether they were vaccinated, how sick they're getting, where the virus is geographically and how quickly it's moving. Those are all going to come out a little bit piecemeal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And while we wait for science to flesh this all out and for the politicians to take purposeful action, what should we do to keep ourselves informed the best we can and to act?
KATHERINE J WU First thing is to remain calm and it is OK to turn off your computer or turn off your phone. Take a deep breath, go for a walk, come back and try and process it anew. We are in a holding pattern. It's OK to take a quick break. Take care of yourself and reassess what is currently in your pandemic toolkit. Do you have masks around? How long has it been since you got your first round of vaccines? Is there anyone in your life who was unvaccinated? One more huge perk of making sure that your vaccines are up to date and that people around you are protected? Is this starves the virus of opportunities to do us more harm. Right now, we're dealing with a Pigeon with a mustache, that does not preclude the possibility of a pigeon appearing in a top hat or a monocle further down the road. Let's keep our pigeons, pigeons and deal with them the best way we know how.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I thought you were going to say pigeon with a machete.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katherine Wu, thank you so much.
KATHERINE J WU Thank you so much for having me again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katherine J. Wu is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers science. Coming up when it comes to the prompt sharing of lifesaving data, no good deed goes unpunished. This is On the Media.