When scientists discovered the highly mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus last month, it set off an eerily familiar chain of events.
Health experts held somber news conferences that raised more questions than answers. Officials imposed travel bans that very likely came too late. Virus trackers filled in their maps as the variant was reported in country after country. And the rest of us waited, with increasing unease, to learn more about the threat we were facing.
The same sequence unfolded nearly two years ago when the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was first discovered. In those early weeks of 2020, the United States proved to be woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead, starting with the most fundamental of tasks: detecting the virus.
These failures have been well chronicled, and Omicron is one more sign that the pandemic, which has now claimed the lives of nearly 800,000 Americans, is not over.
But Omicron is also a dress rehearsal for the next pandemic. The work before us now — detecting, tracking and slowing the spread of a health threat we do not fully understand — is the same work that will be required to stop a future outbreak in its tracks.
The analogy is not perfect. When Omicron arrived, scientists had already developed vaccines and treatments for the virus and were on high alert for new variants. The next pandemic may come with less warning.
Omicron’s emergence is an opportunity to take stock of both the gains we have made and the ways in which we are still falling short. It is also a call to action: Whatever progress we have made is not enough.