April 1, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich
Omicron: From Frankenstein to Hurricane
When threatened by anything from AIDs to zoonoses, we unconsciously use war metaphors and natural force metaphors (storms, tsunamis, fires, avalanches, volcanoes etc.). We can also use more consciously created metaphors, such as Frankenstein (created in the 1990s). Such old and new metaphors help us understand and mitigate old and new risks and threats. War metaphors have been used abundantly during the covid pandemic. Frankenstein metaphors have been less visible but not absent.
Today, I want to talk a bit but Frankenstein and storm metaphors used in the context of the (so far) latest version of the coronavirus, namely Omicron. This variant, indeed, a whole family of it, is sweeping the globe just when governments have declared that the pandemic is over and we have to live with the virus.
A flavour of Frankenstein?
Omicron is a variant of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on 24 November 2021. Since then it has become the dominant strain of the virus. Omicron is not a single strain, but rather a family of three: BA.1, BA.2, and BA.3. So, Omicron doesn’t just mean ‘BA.1’. At the moment the world is grappling with BA.2.
Many researchers describe BA.2 as another ‘flavour’ of Omicron, as in this article in New Scientist: “It is basically another flavour of omicron that has been around right from the start.”
Some researchers have called BA.2 a ‘stealth’ variant “because it has genetic mutations that could make it harder to distinguish it from the older delta variant using PCR tests, compared with its original omicron parent, BA.1”.
Scientists who helped identify Omicron referred to the Omicron variant as a Frankenstein virus or as almost Frankensteinish, as it had many more mutations than other variants. Referring to the variant’s many mutations, yet another scientist said, using a musical metaphor: “This thing is a Frankenstein mix of all of the greatest hits”.
There was also talk of a recombinant variant, ‘Deltacron’, a hybrid of the Delta and Omicron variant. Some have dubbed it the “Frankenstein virus” (have a look at this illustration on NPR!). The recombination probably happened inside an immunocompromised person, possibly around Christmas when there was a lot of socialising and mixing and that person was infected twice – which meant the cells had a cocktail as well as the people celebrating Christmas.
The inspiration for the Frankenstein label came from the fact that the virus has “the head of the omicron variant stuck onto the body of the delta variant.” Just as Omicron was talked about as a family, the Frankenstein virus is talked about as a person. As a bioinformatician, Shishi Luo, explained, this new virus, which can develop in a twice infected person, “’steals a chunk of genes from another variant. So the delta variant, in a way, plagiarized part of omicron’s genetic code’”. And, she continued, this “just shows how SARS-CoV-2 has many tools in its kit for changing itself.” It’s alive!
We actual humans, by contrast, seem not to be quite as adaptable and nimble as the virus. First, we were waging a ‘war’ against an ‘invisible enemy’. We then came to know the enemy quite intimately in all its incarnations. Now, we are told to live with the virus, a virus that governments around the world make invisible by no longer looking at it.
Weathering the storm?
We have seen how the Omicron variant and its family members were conceptualised as flavours and working by stealth and how, when teaming up with other variants, it turned into Frankenstein. But Omicron can also be seen as a storm. I found two tweets that, I think, for the first time, map aspects of what we know about weather and climate, indeed climate change, onto Omicron, in a context where governments try to make us forget about Omicron and covid.
One way of forgetting something is not to monitor it anymore. One mathematical biologist here in the UK, Kit Yates, tweeted on 27 March: “Just because we sometimes get storms, it doesn’t mean we stop monitoring the weather. In fact, when there’s an approaching storm, that’s exactly when we need to know what’s happening with the weather the most, so we can plan for the future.”
In England there are storms, while in the United States there are hurricanes. As metaphors are often linked to experiential knowledge, on the other side of the ocean the scientist and paediatrician Peter Hotez tweeted on March 25: “My take: with only 44% of the nation vaccinated and boosted we’ve delivered lots of warm water for hurricane BA.2”.
It is well known that hurricanes need three things to form: “First, you need warm water, at least 80 degrees. The second ingredient is moist air. And finally, there needs to be converging winds”. A warming climate means more warm water. By ‘living with covid’ we are warming the water. So, it’s advisable to continue monitoring the temperature.
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