How worrying is the new coronavirus variant?

I don’t think we know yet. But England’s chief medical officer, Prof. Chris Whitty, says we shouldn’t be too worried. (Unless otherwise indicated, his views and the others set forth below are reported by Laura Donnelly of The Telegraph.)

Whitty agrees with banning travel from the African regions where the new variant is prevalent. He considers this a reasonable precaution.

However, Whitty is more worried about the Delta variant, which he describes as “undoubtedly the principal thing we need to concern ourselves with between now and Christmas.” He’s also worried about government imposition of “muscular restraints” in reaction to a virus that has not yet been shown to pose inordinate health risks.

In the same vein, Sir John Bell, one of England’s most senior advisers on vaccines, says the new variant may end up causing no more than “runny noses and headaches” at least among those who have been vaccinated. He reasons that, while the new variant might evade antibodies, it would be less likely to escape T-cells and other parts of the immune system that provide broader protection.

These views are mostly speculation, but so are the more bleak scenarios we’ve been hearing. What conclusions can we draw from what’s actually happening in Africa?

According to Dr Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association, her country has seen only “very mild cases” so far. She describes the reaction in other countries to the variant as “a storm in a teacup.”

Dr. Coetzee says:

[The new variant] presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two not feeling well. So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms. Of those infected some are currently being treated at home.

Coetzee adds a caveat, though. The patients she’s aware of are mostly healthy men. She believes that as the variant spreads to older, unvaccinated people, “we are going to see many people with. . .severe [symptoms].” But as long as the severe symptoms are largely confined to old folks who are unvaccinated, there is a solution — vaccinating those among the elderly who don’t want to assume the risk posed by the variant.

Much of the panic about the new variant stems from the fact that it has spread very quickly in Southern Africa. However, this might be because only about one-quarter of the population there has been vaccinated. We’re only speculating about this, though, because we don’t yet have much information on the vaccination status of those in South Africa who have caught the variant virus.

The bottom line, I think, is that we don’t really know how worried to be about the new variant, but we shouldn’t be panicked about it.

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