University of South Florida

Omicron variant: Keep calm and carry on

Dear Faculty, Staff, Residents and Students:

In the past few weeks much has been made of the SARS-CoV-2 South African (B.1.1.529) variant. Cable news and social media have exaggerated potential risks causing global stock markets to swoon and prompting much anxiety.  However, in my opinion, the greatest threat of this variant is not illness but its potential to take our focus away from the real public health challenge – the current Delta variant which continues its relentless onslaught fueled by unfounded, irrational vaccine hesitancy and lethal misinformation. The B.1.1.529 variant was first detected in South Africa where it has quickly become the dominant strain of the virus. It has now been identified in about 45 countries and 20 states.  It contains over 50 mutations compared with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. These mutations include sequences found in endemic coronaviruses causing many common colds. And although B.1.1.529 appears more transmissible than the now dominant Delta variant, it seems to have lower virulence. In fact, to date all cases have been mild to moderate and there have been no fatalities. While that may change, particularly as older, obese, and medically complicated and unvaccinated patients become infected, it is welcome news.

I have been predicting for some time that the COVID-19 pandemic would end with a “whimper and not a bang” as the virus gradually mutates into a form consistent with the coronaviruses that cause a quarter of common colds (see my March 2021 Tampa Bay Times Editorial). From an evolutionary perspective, the most “successful” virus is one that was easily transmissible, generates mild symptoms and does not kill its host.  This is why there are many, many more common colds than deadly Ebola, MERS or SARS-CoV-1 infections.  In fact, one only has to look at the incredible efficiency of the common cold to appreciate that this phenotype is the logical endpoint of mutation-driven viral natural selection.

So while much data needs to be collected to confirm this hypothesis, in the interim, the single most effective tool we have to ensure the public’s health, a vibrant economy and our collective sanity is multi-dose COVID-19 vaccination. So if you haven’t been vaccinated – do it now, and, if you qualify, get your booster shot.  In other words, do what USF Health has done so well over the past two years – follow the science, use common sense and keep calm and carry on.




Charles J. Lockwood, MD, MHCM
Senior Vice President, USF Health
Dean, Morsani College of Medicine

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