Another Month, Another Variant

The world is up in arms about the latest COVID-19 variant. The new variant, named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, emerged in South Africa and in only a few days has traveled across the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci says he wouldn’t be surprised if the Omicron variant is already in the United States.

“Omicron” seems like an odd name for a virus, at least to me. It sounds like one of those anonymous planets visited by the Starship Enterprise where one or two guys in red shirts met an untimely death, or the name of one of the Transformers. But there is a rational basis for the choice. The WHO started naming the variants after letters in the Greek alphabet, and “omicron” is the 15th letter. That means we’ve cycled through 13 prior named variants. (The WHO skipped “nu” and “xi,” purportedly because “nu” could be confused with “new” and “xi” is a common last name–which just happens to be the name of the Chinese president). Of the 13 variants, the WHO has designated five as “variants of concern”: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and omicron.

The emergence of the new variant has produced the by-now-familiar scenes of government officials scrambling to determine their responses, because “Omicron” is seen as having the “potential” to be more resistant to vaccination protection. Some governments, including the U.S., have imposed travel restrictions in an effort to allow time to determine whether the new variant is more transmissible than the “delta” variant that we’ve heard so much about. The U.S. has restricted entry by non-U.S. citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Other countries have gone farther; Israel, for example, has closed its borders to all foreign travelers.

Brace yourself, folks: we may be in for another round of government-mandated restrictions, closures, and mandates. This time, however, the surrounding circumstances are likely to be different: regulators will be dealing with a population that includes a lot of mask-weary, restriction-fatigued people that might not be as willing to comply with new edicts. In addition, the legality of the prior COVID-related orders, such as President Biden’s vaccination mandate, are working their way through our court systems, and some state courts have struck down such orders on state constitutional grounds. The legal challenges and prior court rulings are likely to complicate the issuance of new, sweeping mandates by federal, state, and local governments.

So now we’ve got “Omicron” to deal with. In case you’re interested, the upcoming letters in the Greek alphabet that could become the names of newly emerging COVID variants are pi, rho, and sigma. I guess we should all be grateful that the “pi” variant didn’t show up before Thanksgiving, our greatest pie holiday.