BACK IN 2019 it took a month for the warning to go up about a new respiratory disease in Wuhan; and another month for America to suspend flights from China. By then large amounts of the coronavirus had spread around the world. By contrast, the recent identification of a new and potentially dangerous variant of covid-19 in South Africa took place within days. Travel bans followed within hours. Indeed some were announced even before the World Health Organisation had dubbed the new variant Omicron (they tactfully missed out the Greek letter Xi, which might have caused offence in China).
The admirable work of South Africa’s scientists and their exemplary openness, along with the rapid recognition that Omicron poses a genuine threat, show that the world has learnt a lot about dealing with pandemics in the past two years. However, the very fact that Omicron was spotted early, using sparse data, means that its true nature will remain unclear without further research. The real test of pandemic preparedness will be how wisely the world uses the time it has won.