Omicron is a case study in unknown risk

Unknown risks occur when no one expects them, in forms that no one could anticipate, and for which no one is prepared. Situations become crises under the influence of unknown risks, which in turn fosters panic rather than rational responses.   

The omicron variant is establishing itself to be the next unknown risk in the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Evidence of this are uniformly aggressive and unfettered reactions. These include travel bans from southern Africa that have become ubiquitous. Israel and Japan have closed their borders to foreign nationals and visitors.   

Yet, we are still learning much about this variant, including how virulent it is, how contagious it is — and most importantly, how effective the existing vaccines will be in protecting against this variant. Speculation is ubiquitous when projecting the characteristics and possible impacts of omicron, though answers will eventually be forthcoming at some point in the future.   

Proactive steps to be prepared are admirable. However, what many countries are executing in response to omicron are nothing more than kneejerk policy reactions based on fears that may never become reality. In some cases, such reactions, like the travel bans and closed borders, may even be more destructive than the variant itself.    

Winning any war demands “knowing your enemy.” Surveillance testing and sequencing are such tools to combat the unknown risks associated with omicron. The role of widespread surveillance testing is to identify where every variant, including omicron, resides in the population, and the rate at which it is spreading. Sequencing provides the necessary data to track the evolution of the virus into new variants.   

When the delta variant emerged in early summer 2021, it began a new surge of infections and deaths, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates and limited prior natural immunity. Every person who opted to remain unvaccinated empowered the virus. With booster shots now needed to keep people and communities protected, the definition of fully vaccinated should include being boosted. Anything less than boosted exposes a person to personal risks, their community to population risks, and the associated deleterious effects of unknown risks.        

Recall that prior to the delta variant, the pandemic appeared to be on a trajectory that permitted a return to some semblance of societal normalcy. The appearance of this more contagious delta variant required the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reverse their face mask recommendations, giving the perception that the agency was sending mixed messages. 

In reality, the CDC was responding to the unknown risks of a novel variant. The delta variant energized the pandemic in unpredictable ways.   

Will omicron do the same?  

COVID-19 has exposed the weak belly of risk management and dealing with unknown risks. Indeed, what has made COVID-19 so daunting has not been the known risks, like infections leading to hospitalization and deaths, but the unknown risks, like who is asymptomatically infected and contagious, who will develop long COVID, as well as what new variants, like omicron, will emerge, and when.    

COVID-19 has become a case study in the emergence of unknown risks. Every step forward has been met with unpredictable obstacles that demand real-time responses relying on incomplete information.    

Addressing unknown risks requires flexibility, humility and preparedness. In contrast, complacency and fear create fertile environments for unknown risks to gain the upper hand.  

Unknown risks are precisely why excess resources are essential in every effective organization, something that our nation woefully lacks.     

Omicron presents the opportunity to write the next chapter on unknown risks in the COVID-19 pandemic. Omicron demonstrates that we do not know when the next new unknown risk will occur, but we know with certainty that it will emerge when we least expect it, with unpredictable consequences for all.    

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy.  

Tags CDC Coronavirus COVID-19 Delta variant Masks Omicron variant Pandemic Sheldon H. Jacobson Vaccines

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