It’s a bird, it’s a plane. No, it’s the super-spreader, Omicron!
I had vowed to myself, several months ago, that I will not write another word on Covid, the virus that has been the blight of our lives this past couple of years. I have had to go back on my word. Literally. The fact that Covid19, along with its many variants, appeared to be losing its potency over the recent past with more people getting vaccinated, more people developing anti-bodies, sports stadiums beginning to fill up again, concert halls bursting at the seams, people flying to all parts of the world – all this lulled us into a false sense of security. In fact, I recently attended, with some misgiving, a wedding reception at a swank hotel in Bangalore. We sauntered in, fully masked up, when mine host rushed up to me with a crushing bear hug and commanded me to remove my mask. ‘Bangalore is now Covid-free,’ he declared grandly. ‘Sez you,’ I muttered to myself. Many of us were looking over our shoulders warily, wondering when the next Covid avatar was set to pounce. We were pretty sure it was merely lurking round the corner, taking a water break, and getting its breath back. Infecting millions of people over such a long period can be a tiring job: even for an invisible virus. And right on cue, it happened. I crave your indulgence for starting a sentence with ‘And.’ These are trying times, and pedantic grammarians should cut us hack writers some slack.
What happened, at the stroke of the midnight hour, was the arrival of this unbidden, viral guest. Presenting the new, vastly improved variant of Covid19, the dynamic Omicron. The medical boffins tell us, and who am I to go against them, that Omicron has 32 mutations on the spike protein, is very easily transmissible and this slippery new variant can even bypass the efficacy of the double-dosed vaccine that many of us have armed ourselves with. Very slimy piece of work, this Omicron. ‘When are we getting our booster shots?’ is the universal cry ringing out. That’s rich, coming from many who were conscientious objectors to taking even the first shot!
So, there you go. Not one to allow the grass to grow under my feet, and not entirely convinced by whatever was being peddled on our television news channels by hyper-ventilating anchors, I thought it best to approach my close doctor friend, whom I have had the pleasure of chit-chatting with in my columns on earlier occasions. Given the sensitivity of the subject being discussed he agreed, on condition of anonymity, to speak with me. For the purposes of this piece, I have decided to address him as Dr. No. It never occurred to me that the good Dr. No was not much of an expert on the subject either, but he was the only medico who was willing to give me the time of day. I bashed on regardless. Having just seen off a patient, he had me ushered into his gloomy chamber.
I breezed in with a cheery ‘Morning Dr. No, why the long face? Or is it just the long mask? What gives?’
‘First off, where did you get this idea of giving me the Dr. No moniker? Wasn’t he the eponymous villain in the first of the James Bond films? Is that the best you could come up with?’ The doc was clearly below par. Probably got up from the wrong side of the bed.
I was at my acerbic best. ‘Would you have preferred Dr. Jekyll? Or Mr. Hyde? I think not. Every time I asked to meet you, you kept saying no. Dr. No was the hands-down choice to preserve your precious anonymity. Selected itself. Look, stop moaning and let’s get down to business. We can’t have you going under the weather. Physician, heal thyself and all that. I came to talk to you about Omicron. You know, to get some precious insights into this B.1.1.529 variant of concern. As opposed to variant of interest.’ I had done my homework.
Dr. No was impressed. ‘You’ve certainly mugged up all the jargon, but what insights do you want from me? All those nattily dressed doctors on television have been spouting forth about the virus before it has even made a proper entry. You probably know more about it than I do.’
‘Come, come Doc. Modesty does not become you. Will Omicron be as dangerous as the Delta variant, which has been plaguing us thus far? Tell all, your secret is safe with me.’
‘What secret? No cloak and dagger stuff here. Trouble is you’ve been reading too many James Bond books or watching the Sean Connery movies. It’s all out in the open. Those prophets of gloom and doom from W.H.O. have been predicting fire and brimstone to befall us. Of course, they prefer the understated ‘variant of concern.’
‘Gosh, you’re getting all Biblical on me. Ok, if you want to be so cagey about Omicron, let me tell you what I have gleaned as a lay person and you can correct me if I have missed anything out. The bloody thing is a super spreader, transmissibility going through the roof, so far not proved to be fatal, symptoms include mild fever, deep exhaustion and a scratchy throat. How am I going, Doc?’
Dr. No looked peeved. ‘Go to the top of the class. If you know all this, why come here and waste my time? I have patients waiting outside. And you could be risking infection yourself. Did you ever think about that? And you call that a mask? It’s like gossamer. You might as well be rolling out a welcome mat to all the viruses floating around. Come in Omi, it’s open house today. Free drinks all round. Honestly!’
‘Look Doc, I know you’re under a great deal of stress, but there’s no need to get personal. What is the point of having a doctor for a friend if he is going to come over all sarcastic and bitter? Cheer up, my friend. That lady doctor from South Africa, the one with a funny name and a funnier accent, was all smiles. Nothing to worry about, she said.’
‘I presume you are referring to Dr. Angelique Coetzee. What is so funny about her name? Not half as crazy as Dr. No, that’s for sure. Why didn’t you call me Goldfinger? And don’t mock her accent either. Better than affecting a put-on Oxbridge brogue like that Tharoor chap. Anyway, she was quick to point out that her observations were made on the spur of the moment, and that things can change.’
‘Hedging her bets, eh? One can understand where she is coming from. But Doc, give me a final answer. Omicron, will this be the last of the variants? Or is a more deadly B.1.2. 530 in the offing? You can give it to me straight up.’
‘I am not pouring you a shot of whisky, damn it. Straight up, indeed. I am not a soothsayer, either. Beware the Ides of March. You really are a card you know. Don’t know why I tolerate you.’
‘Because you are my buddy, Doc. By the way, one last quiz question. Do you know why they junked the idea of selecting the name ‘Xi’ for the new virus, which is also part of the Greek alphabet like Beta, Delta, Epsilon and Omicron?’
‘Don’t tell me. Fearing the wrath of Xi Jinping? Really? Shucks. After Wuhan, that is exactly what they ought to have done. What a golden opportunity missed!’
‘W.H.O. developed cold feet. Understandable. Hullo, why are you sounding a bit hoarse?’
‘Don’t know pal. My throat is feeling a bit scratchy and a mild fever and body ache is coming on. And I am feeling terribly exhausted. Do you think…?’
I pushed my chair back violently. ‘Omigosh, you had better go and see a doctor, Doc. I don’t like the look of this one bit. I am out of here. Gotta fly.’ I rushed out of his chamber as fast as my wobbly legs would take me.
As I was leaving, I thought I heard a low chuckle and Dr. No telling his 2IC, ‘That got rid of him fast enough. He won’t bother me anymore. Call in the next patient.’