The omicron variant is a mystery. Here’s how science will solve it

The omicron variant is a mystery. Here’s how science will solve it

Enlarge (credit: Remko De Waal | Getty Images)

Starting last Friday, the race was on—between a virus and information about it. And for a while, the information moved faster, even though there was hardly any of it.

Scientists in South Africa identified a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19—within days the World Health Organization gave it the spy-sci-fi name omicron—and because of the abundant smorgasbord of mutations in its spike protein, the nanomechanical tentacle that attaches and cracks into cells, science alarms started going off.

But to be clear, they were the “We should check this out” alarms, not the “Everybody lose their effing minds” alarms. Apparently they sound alike, though. Panic took flight as scientists identified omicron in 18 countries, triggering travel bans, border closures, stock market crashes, and, in the United States, holiday weekend worries that the world was headed back to March of 2020. Researchers in South Africa and Botswana have found the most cases thus far, though that may be an artifact of looking for them; on Tuesday, Dutch authorities announced that the earliest case they can identify is 11 days old, predating omicron’s identification in South Africa.

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