‘There’s no need for panic,” the experts always tell us—right before they panic. On November 25, South African researchers announced they’d identified yet another variant of the COVID-19 virus circulating in their country. It appeared to be spreading fast. The World Health Organization dubbed the new strain Omicron. And this new variant looks like a doozy, with more than 50 mutations diverging from the “ancestral,” or Wuhan, strain of the virus. These mutations could make Omicron more transmissible than earlier strains and better able to elude the immunity conferred by vaccines or previous infections.
Based on the initial reports, it sounded pretty scary. And so was the reaction to them. New York State officials advised health-care providers to consider cancelling elective medical procedures. The stock market plunged 900 points, its biggest drop of the year. Suddenly it seemed as if we were heading into March 2020 all over again.
Within hours, the Biden White House announced it was shutting down travel, not just from South Africa, but from seven other African nations, most of which had yet to report a single case of the new variant. On November 29, Biden called the variant a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” (The president’s reassuring words were slightly undercut by the fact that he repeatedly mispronounced the new strain “Omni-cron.”) Officials issued stricter COVID-testing rules for travelers entering the country and floated a plan requiring some visitors to self-quarantine.
The administration hoped to convey the message that Biden has a firm grip on the public-health tiller. In truth, the measures the White House rushed to announce were either counterproductive, largely irrelevant, or basic steps that should have been taken months earlier.
Despite delays and miscues, the U.S. has made progress. More than 70 percent of Americans over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated, and rates of hospitalization and deaths are far below their peaks. Although cases in which vaccinated people become infected are rising, those breakthrough infections tend to be mild. As a result, the overall U.S. COVID case count is becoming increasingly decoupled from the rate of serious and fatal infections. In other words, for a growing majority of sufferers, COVID is now a temporary annoyance rather than a terrifying scourge. And yet our health officials and the media still tend to focus on case counts, rather than hospitalizations and deaths, as the benchmark metric. That lopsided emphasis makes it harder to discuss sensible policies. And the new frenzy over Omicron threatens to widen that disconnect between our perceived and actual levels of risk.
But this doesn’t mean Omicron isn’t a problem. For conservatives, it’s tempting to assume that each new wave of COVID paranoia—like the Delta variant and, now, Omicron—is just media hype, another excuse for endless restrictions on life and commerce. Still, Omicron, like Delta before it, could be a significant threat to public health. Data from South Africa, where most people have already been infected with the Delta variant, suggest Omicron can readily break through the immunity conferred by previous coronavirus infections. Early indications hint that Omicron could be three to six times more transmissible than Delta.
Virologists were also alarmed to learn that most of the Omicron mutations involve changes to the spike protein that the virus uses to attach itself to human cells. Since our current vaccines target that spike protein, does this mean Omicron could make our vaccines toothless? The newest studies indicate that the variant significantly reduces—but doesn’t fully eliminate—the effectiveness of a two-dose vaccine regimen. A booster shot will restore the original level of protection.
All this sounds worrisome. It certainly looks like Omicron could replace Delta as the dominant strain of COVID. But it doesn’t address the most important question: Will Omicron kill you?
Here, the early evidence out of South Africa is reassuring. Despite a dramatic spike in infections, only a small number of patients have required hospitalization. In fact, in that country’s leading hospital treating COVID cases, most patients who tested positive for the disease were admitted for “diagnoses unrelated to COVID-19,” according to a new report. Few needed supplemental oxygen, and only one was in intensive care. Looking at all 166 patients with COVID admitted during South Africa’s late-November Omicron surge, the study found that the average hospital stay was shorter—only 2.8 days—and death rates were less than half of what they had been over the previous 18 months.
South Africa has a very young population, so it is too soon to say whether Omicron will show the same benign characteristics in countries like the U.S. with more elderly residents. But, given that about 80 percent of U.S. COVID deaths occur among people 65 and older—and 87 percent of Americans in that age group are fully vaccinated—the outlook for managing Omicron in the U.S. seems promising.
This doesn’t mean we’re entirely out of the woods. COVID is still killing about 1,000 people each day in America. But despite all the talk about breakthrough infections, the vast majority of people dying of COVID today are unvaccinated. There’s no reason to think Omicron will radically change that picture. If Omicron—or some variant that follows it—starts making end runs around vaccines, those vaccines can be quickly tweaked to adjust to the new threats. Meanwhile, booster shots appear to be providing excellent protection against serious breakthrough infections.
In other words, COVID remains a problem, and Omicron adds challenging new wrinkles. But it’s a manageable problem. And that’s what makes many of today’s COVID policies so frustrating. Biden’s Africa travel ban, for example, gave the impression of decisive action. But South Africa complained that it was being penalized for doing the research that uncovered the new strain. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” the country’s foreign ministry said. In the future, other countries might hesitate before sharing such research with the world. At any rate, it’s quite likely the variant didn’t originate in South Africa and was merely detected there.
The best way to prevent such variants from spreading is to keep them from emerging in the first place. And that requires improving the dismal vaccination rates in poor countries where the variants are mostly likely to develop. The U.S. has already pledged to deliver more than a billion vaccine doses to the developing world, but that’s far short of the 6 to 9 billion doses needed. The U.S. shouldn’t have to carry this burden alone, but ramping up our “vaccine diplomacy” would make ethical and diplomatic sense, not to mention help protect the lives of American citizens.
Here at home, the administration has been slow to give Americans the tools they need to protect themselves. The U.S. has spent roughly $5 trillion on pandemic relief to date. Yet home test kits—potentially one of the most cost-effective, frontline defenses against the disease—remain expensive and hard to find in American drugstores. Our public health officials have never had much faith in the public’s ability to make sensible personal decisions. Perhaps that’s why affordable test kits—which empower people with information about their own health—have been such a low priority. It wasn’t until the Omicron scare in late November that Biden announced a plan to provide the public with “free” home test kits, though you’ll have to buy them and get reimbursed somehow. How? The administration promises to nail down the details—sometime in “mid-January” 2022.
When Biden was campaigning for president, he and his handlers probably assumed it would be easy to improve on Trump’s erratic pandemic record. And they knew they would reap the political windfall from Operation Warp Speed, Trump’s signature COVID achievement. But then the Delta variant extended the pandemic longer than expected. And now Omicron just might extend it some more. COVID has a way of outsmarting the experts. It seems to be evolving from a one-time crisis to a permanent, low-level endemic—something we need to mitigate when we can and live with when we can’t.
Biden never prepared the country for this kind of hard-headed realism. Quite the opposite: He ran on the promise of eradicating the disease. “We’re not going to shut down the country,” Biden endlessly repeated on the campaign trail. “We’re going to shut down the virus!” It was a brilliant campaign line. Or would have been if the Biden team actually had a plan to shut down the virus. Instead, it might go down in history as the “Read my lips!” of the Biden presidency.
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