There are too many pessimistic warnings about the potential for catastrophe
It is tempting to feel sorry for SAGE, given the criticism they receive from all sides. This week, the fuss is over a meeting they called regarding the B.1.617.2 variant of the coronavirus (among other matters).
Normally such a meeting would be unremarkable. After all, SAGE exists to advise the Government on unfolding developments. It is entirely routine and proper for them to meet when a new variant arises. But against the backdrop of loosening restrictions and plans to drop compulsory face coverings in schools from the 17th May, the meeting was taken by some as a sign that this progress might be halted or reversed.
Doubtless, had SAGE not met, they’d have been accused of ignoring the situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
But the interest came from the latest obsession in the Covid story: variants. The fact is that variants are inevitable. For as long as SARS-CoV-2 exists, there will always be mutations, and as long as there are mutations, there will be new variants. Short of eradicating Covid from the globe — the likelihood of which Chris Whitty has described as “close to zero” — there is the potential for some of these variants to spread.
The question then, is how do we respond? Like Kent variant (B.1.1.7), the emergence of its cousin, B.1.617.2, is subject of dramatic headlines. There are comment pieces and vox pops declaring that their existence justifies ongoing restrictions and indefinite border closures. When will this end? As I say, there will always be a new variant around the corner.
What has gained comparatively little attention is the fact that neither variant has shown evidence of having a complete vaccine escape mutation. Vaccines continue to offer strong protection against serious illness and death. In this country, nearly 70% of people over the age of 18 have had received at least one jab, and 35% have had two. Hospitalisations and deaths have plummeted.
At the end of an achingly long year — during which rates of depression have doubled, we need to question if this constant fixation on new variants is helpful or productive. Of course, the public should be kept informed, but many of the discussions around variants consist of pessimistic warnings about the endless potential for catastrophe, interspersed with impenetrable technical detail. Do most people really need to know about the finer points of an E484K mutation on vaccine efficacy?
Perhaps this is a rare example of where more information is not always a good thing — public interest would be better served by returning analysis of Covid variants back to the lab.