On Omicron, uncertainty, vaccine equity, and the media

Late last week, the world started to hear about a new coronavirus variant that had already started to worry scientists: B.1.1.529, which was first detected in southern Africa earlier this month. On Friday, the World Health Organization noted the variant’s very high number of mutations, declared it to be “of concern,” and christened it “Omicron,” in line with the Greek-alphabet naming convention for variants that the WHO adopted earlier this year (yes, they skipped Nu and Xi); meanwhile, various countries imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, even though we don’t yet know for sure where the variant originated. Indeed, there’s very little that we do know for sure about Omicron at this point: it may be much more transmissible even than the Delta variant, but then again it may not; it may cause milder illness than other variants, but then again it may not; it may render our existing vaccines less effective, but we don’t know by how much. Kai Kupferschmidt, of Science magazine, likened the picture to a jigsaw puzzle whose every new piece changes the puzzler’s perspective. (“It’s a picture of the sky. No, wait the sea. Oh, a ship.”) The writer Charlie Warzel noted on Twitter that we’ve entered a “super weird moment where we know a thing is happening but we don’t know what.”

Despite the massive uncertainty, the world’s media instantly swelled with content: “What we know about the Omicron variant”; “The Omicron Variant: We Still Know Almost Nothing”; “Opinion | The Omicron Variant Is Creating a Lot of Anxiety,” and so on and so on. Over the weekend, a debate took shape, among experts and journalists, as to whether all the coverage was too much. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, accused fellow scientists of shamefully overselling fears about Omicron despite the paucity of hard data on the variant; Erin Biba, a freelance science journalist, tweeted that it is “completely and utterly exhausting” when “doomsday headlines and uninformed reporters create mass hysteria before we even have any details or information.” Yesterday, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, took up the question on his show. “Right now, from where I sit, we don’t know if Omicron should be the lead story or not,” he said, before putting that question to Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN analyst and medicine professor at George Washington University. “I think it should not be the lead story right now because it’s a story that is based entirely on speculation,” Reiner replied. When Stelter pointed out that Omicron fears caused the Dow to tank on Friday, Reiner replied, “right—because the speculation was all bad.”

Related: Independence Day, the Delta variant, and the relentless pandemic story

It’s not hard to imagine what media critics will say about the early Omicron coverage in a few weeks if the variant turns out not to be as bad as some experts fear. Equally, however, it’s not hard to imagine what media critics would have said if major outlets had initially ignored or downplayed Omicron and it turns out to be really bad. There is no good way out of this bind without knowing what’s going to happen next—and the story here is that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. This challenge extends beyond the press; officials from the Biden administration told the Washington Post’s Dan Diamond that they, too, have been weighing the risks of being seen to cry wolf against the risks of failing to prepare the public for a reasonably foreseeable blow and, ultimately, protecting people. Nor will the variant politely stop spreading to give us two weeks to wait for more data. Ultimately, Omicron is a particularly acute example of pandemic-era challenges for journalism that I’ve covered often in this newsletter: what we can see so far isn’t what’s actually happening, and we may never get perfect visibility.

Swathes of the press are very bad at processing and respecting uncertainty, but that’s more a reflection of the incentives that news leaders choose to privilege than an inevitability; as Kupferschmidt put it, watching scientists race to find out more about Omicron is actually “a fascinating process to see play out as a science journalist. In some ways this is science at its purest because there is less of a framework that every bit of information is being slotted into.” The more useful question here, perhaps, is not whether Omicron should be the top story of the day, but how we ought to be thinking about it, given that it is. It’s possible to be clear about uncertainty rather than tripping over it, and I saw a good amount of coverage in major outlets that did center what we don’t know about Omicron (within the limits of the incentives described above). I saw some good coverage, too, that interrogated the effectiveness of the travel bans imposed by Western countries, which were undoubtedly newsworthy for those affected by them.

As is always the case when a story gets a lot of coverage, however, not all of it was so sharp. Headlines said that the US will “bar travelers” from southern Africa, without always noting as prominently that the ban won’t apply to US citizens or permanent residents. Nor was the parade of breathless stories and push notifications every time a new country discovered an Omicron case particularly helpful. Having a sense of global spread, of course, is important—but in the absence of universal surveillance testing, the cases we catch fail to tell the whole story, and can even be misleading in the absence of clear caveats. (Just because Canada has reported Omicron cases and the US hasn’t yet doesn’t mean that the US doesn’t have any.) Many of the problems with the Omicron coverage—as was the case with the Delta coverage that came before it—seemed to me to flow from the widespread media urge, which is particularly prevalent in the US, to frame the world as a collection of discrete nations, and to use a given outlet’s home nation and its interests as a prism through which to see all the others. (If you don’t believe me, check out the Post’s top print headline on Saturday.) Nations are organizing the response to Omicron, and we should, of course, cover that. But it isn’t an excuse for insular thinking.

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The problems with this dynamic can be seen in one particularly important COVID story, that of global vaccine equity. We’ve been told for over a year now—including by many good journalists—that rich countries hoarding vaccines at poorer countries’ expense (and news organizations uncritically framing vaccine supplies as a zero-sum global war) is not only a moral problem, but one of self-interest: the more the virus spreads globally, the more opportunities it has to mutate into a particularly troublesome new variant. (The problem extends beyond supply to vaccine infrastructure: after a long wait, for example, the nation of South Africa has obtained lots of shots but is struggling to get them into arms fast enough.) This story has been covered by many journalists, sometimes very prominently. But it has never driven a US news cycle as frenzied and focused as that sparked by the discovery of Omicron. Something new happening is a more reliable driver of mass-media interest than the unrealized risk of it happening, or something that should be happening continuing to not happen. Editors’ decisions as to what constitutes the day’s top story are very often reactive. Viewed through the prism of persistently low vaccination rates in the Global South, and all the corresponding warnings around new variants, the volume of Omicron coverage maybe looks more reactive than premature.

Again, we don’t know that Omicron originated in the Global South—only that it was discovered and is spreading there. But global vaccine equity is crucial context here, at the very least. Some Omicron coverage prominently included it; yesterday, for instance, the Post reported on how Moderna’s protection of its intellectual property is hindering efforts to produce Africa’s first COVID vaccine. Even now, though, such focus is far from ubiquitous. This isn’t just shortsighted but ironic, given all the handwringing about uncertainty here—whatever Omicron’s origins, it’s abundantly clear that we need to vaccinate the entire world at a high level. For its “We Know Almost Nothing About the Omicron Variant” piece, The Atlantic spoke with the virologist Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, who said that, in light of global vaccine inequity, something that looks like the Omicron variant “was predictable.” Knowing almost nothing is not knowing nothing.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • “The Midterm Election Variant!”: Politicians on the right have already started to use Omicron as grist for their conspiracy mill: yesterday, for instance, Rep. Ronny Jackson, a Republican Congressman from Texas (and former White House physician, of all jobs), referred to the “MEV—the Midterm Election Variant!” which Democrats have supposedly invented in order to “CHEAT” in an election. On his show, Stelter noted to Reiner that while “scientists are trying to figure out what’s going on with the future of COVID, in this kind of fantasy right-wing battleground, you still have… these right-wing figures who are saying do not comply, do not comply with the vaccine mandates.”
  • “Trolling”: For the New York Times, Dan Levin reports on vocal anti-vaxxers who died of COVID and whose social-media profiles subsequently became magnets for vicious commentary. “Losses fill a host of websites that claim to be educational, but are fueled by schadenfreude at the deaths of the unvaccinated whose social media posts included Trump memes and conservative conspiracy theories,” Levin writes. “In a hyperpartisan culture plagued by ‘alternative facts’ and debates over the most basic scientific realities of the pandemic, many among the vaccinated are eager to brandish such accounts as the final, indubitable proof that the Covid deniers and those who are anti-vaccine are dangerously misguided. Tapping into the outrage are Reddit forums where there are entries focused on ‘suicide by Covid’ and ‘awards’ granted to those who died.”
  • “Too far”: Peter Jukes, the editor of Byline Times, in the UK, said that he planned to write to the BBC in protest after an actor who appears in a medical drama on the network challenged him on Twitter to “please confirm the data by which you believe that wearing a mask in any way stops the spread of a respiratory virus.” Jukes responded, “This is a step too far BBC,” adding, “I don’t pay my license fee for fictional doctors to challenge sound medical advice.” (The license fee funds the BBC.)


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: A doctor with the El Salvador Virology Center works on coronavirus genome sequencing. Photo by: Camilo Freedman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images