The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
Get our free newsletter
Sign Up
Science + Tech

Omicron: More than Just a ‘Scariant’?

Even if the variant proves not to be a nightmare, its lesson that everyone’s safety is connected demands action.

Crawford Kilian 29 Nov 2021 |

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian covers the pandemic here.

People following the right virologists on Twitter have been aware since mid-November that something was up in South Africa.

After its third COVID-19 wave peaked in July, South African cases plunged from 20,000 a day to 264 on Nov. 8. Then they began to rise, to 1,000 on Nov. 25. By Nov. 28, the daily case count was 2,858: an order of magnitude greater than three weeks earlier.

On Friday, Nov. 26, the World Health Organization confirmed that it was serious indeed, by identifying a new COVID-19 strain as a Variant of Concern. Other agencies like the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control agreed.

This was an impressively swift response, especially since health agencies on all levels are hesitant to upset their political masters.

But scientists online have been complaining that they’d long warned a truly scary variant could easily evolve because of the unequal distribution of vaccines around the world. Vaccinating ourselves first only ensured that COVID-19 would have a chance to spread and mutate in poor countries. We should have shared our vaccines, and perhaps prevented Omicron and other variants.

This is no doubt true, except that plenty of people in poor countries are as vaccine hesitant as we are.

Omicron’s origin is still as obscure as that of COVID-19 itself. Maybe it emerged in South Africa’s spike last July, in the austral winter when the country’s vaccination rate was negligible. Even now, Our World in Data reports that in the last week of November, South Africa had fully vaccinated only 23 per cent of its 60 million people, with another 4.5 percent partially vaccinated.

Or it is also possible that Omicron broke out somewhere else, perhaps even here in fairly well-vaccinated B.C. It could have spread around the world and been spotted in South Africa and Botswana weeks or months after its first emergence.

In any case, on Nov. 26, the Dow Jones fell off the proverbial cliff, ending up 900 points lower than Thursday’s close. Global markets were generally a mess, largely because investors decided people wouldn’t be swarming into airports anytime soon. They were right. Governments banned travel not just from South Africa but all of southern Africa.

Don’t expect that to hold the line on Omicron. At best, such bans might slow the rate of new clusters originating in southern Africa, but Omicron is doubtless outflanking us from airports elsewhere in the world.

Thanks in part to their own long experience with HIV-AIDS, South Africa and Botswana have excellent labs and scientists. That’s why they found Omicron — because they looked, not necessarily because it originated there. And if Botswana and South Africa hadn’t sounded the alarm, Omicron would still be spreading under the radar. Other governments are giving them a beating for their trouble.

It’s almost a truism in public health that you need surveillance long before you think you need surveillance. Otherwise, by the time cases of new disease start turning up in hospitals and clinics, the outbreak is already out of control.

But adequate surveillance would be costly, and public health budgets are notoriously underfunded. Politically, spotting a serious outbreak would be very hard. Those who found one in their own country would have to impose a travel ban or quarantine on themselves to keep it from spreading.

So travel bans are more political theatre than serious public health. They may make governments look decisive, but they usually have loopholes. Recall that Trump banned travel from China, but COVID-19 came into the U.S. from Europe.

A country that was serious would seal itself off from the world as soon as it spotted its first Omicron case, rather than just shun other countries. Instead, Israel has closed itself off from just foreigners, as if returning Israelis would be OK after three days in quarantine. Japan has done the same. Morocco has suspended all incoming flights, but so far just for two weeks.

Even as countries banned travel from South Africa, within hours some were reporting local Omicron cases. Two cases in Ottawa were reported on Sunday afternoon.

While Omicron is still just another strain, we need to remember that new strains aren’t always as scary as they look. We have only a few Omicron cases to go by, and we don’t even know if it’s behind the recent increase in cases in southern Africa.

But are such cases asymptomatic, or afflicting the vaccinated, or targeting the old or the young? We still don’t know.

Omicron may, in a week or two, be defined as what American microbiologist Florian Krammer calls a “scariant.” If so, it will be much less dangerous than we fear: less infectious, less harmful than Delta. If so, a lot of people will consider it just another scare story designed to stampede them into yet more lockdowns and more vaccinations. That in turn would give future variants more freedom to spread through populations (and health-care workers) and kill more of them than it otherwise could have.

Scientists are always correcting themselves as they learn more, but many in the public think science should have the final answer right now. If scientists downplay a new variant that turns out to be deadly, they’re blamed. If they sound the alarm over a new variant that turns out to be relatively mild, they’re blamed again. So on top of their duty to learn as much as they can about Omicron, scientists must also patiently and repeatedly explain themselves to a public too impatient for explanations.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: What Coverage Would You Like to See More of This Year?

Take this week's poll