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The Morning Dispatch: What We Know About the Vaccines and Omicron
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The Morning Dispatch: What We Know About the Vaccines and Omicron

Plus: A Q&A with two representatives who are trying to fix Congress.

Happy Friday! Today is the 101st anniversary of Woodrow Wilson being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. If Jonah seems like he’s in a bad mood, that’s why.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected former President Donald Trump’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the National Archives from releasing an initial tranche of White House records to the January 6 Select Committee. “Former President Trump has given this court no legal reason to cast aside President Biden’s assessment of the Executive Branch interests at stake,” the three-judge panel wrote. Trump has 14 days to appeal the case to the Supreme Court before the records will be released.

  • As part of a deal brokered by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate voted 59-35 on Thursday to pass a bill allowing lawmakers—one time only—to raise the debt limit with a simple-majority vote rather than the typical 60-vote threshold. Once President Biden signs the bill into law, congressional Democrats are expected to raise the debt ceiling along party lines and stave off a potential default.

  • President Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for about 90 minutes on Thursday to discuss the buildup of Russian military forces along the two countries’ shared border. “[Biden] reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to a White House readout of the call. “[He] made clear that the United States and its allies and partners are committed to the principle of ‘no decisions or discussions about Ukraine without Ukraine.’”

  • The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday amended its emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to get booster shots six months after their second dose. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky formally recommended boosters for anyone 16 and older yesterday as well.

  • The number of daily new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has increased 27 percent over the past two weeks while hospitalizations and deaths attributed to the virus have grown 20 and 12 percent over the same timeframe, respectively. The Upper Midwest and Rust Belt are currently facing the most strain on their hospital systems.

  • Initial jobless claims decreased by 43,000 week-over-week to 184,000 last week, according to the Labor Department, the lowest level in 52 years.

  • New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday she is ending her gubernatorial bid just weeks after entering the race. She will instead run for re-election as attorney general, saying she wants to finish “a number of important investigations and cases that are underway.”

  • New York’s City Council voted 33-14 on Thursday to pass a bill allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal—but not state or federal—elections beginning in January 2023. Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed skepticism about the legality of the measure—which will very likely be challenged in court—but said he will not veto it.

If You’re Vaccinated, Don’t Freak Out About Omicron

(Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.)

When Omicron was first discovered by South African researchers in late November, the most pressing question in public health immediately became whether our existing COVID-19 vaccines would hold up when faced with a variant exhibiting more than 30 mutations from the original SARS-CoV-2 virus upon which they were based. Early indications of how easily Omicron spreads—it’s already the dominant strain in South Africa and a Japanese study pegged its transmissibility at more than four times that of Delta—rendered the answer to that question all the more urgent.

Virologists worldwide have been working around the clock the last few weeks in the hopes of providing some peace of mind, and in recent days, we’ve started to see some preliminary results.

On Tuesday, scientists at the Africa Health Research Institute published a laboratory study that found that, although the Omicron variant is more likely to evade the immunity provided by the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, vaccination and previous infection are still likely to prevent hospitalization and death. Pfizer and BioNTech announced the preliminary results of their own laboratory study the following day, reporting that two vaccine doses plus a booster was just about as effective against Omicron as the original two-dose regimen was against “wild type” SARS-CoV-2.

Compared to some of the doomsday predictions made when the variant first emerged, it’s fantastic news. “My overarching notion would be, so far so good,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “There’s a lot of caution around that because we don’t have complete information, but it certainly would appear as though our current vaccines—especially if they’re boosted—provide a notable degree of protection against Omicron.”

As we’ve previously discussed, vaccines provide two different types of immunity: Humoral (antibody-driven) immunity that neutralizes pathogens more quickly but generally wanes over the course of a few months, and cell-mediated (T-cell-driven) immunity that doesn’t necessarily prevent infection but sticks around in the body much longer.

“Even if the number of mutations on the [Omicron] spike protein affect neutralizing antibodies, it is likely the T-helper-cell epitopes and cytotoxic T-cell epitopes will still remain intact,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “That’s what you would imagine would be true because that always has been true. That immunological memory—with T-cells and B-cells—ultimately is going to protect against serious illness. And I think it’s extremely likely that two doses will protect against serious illness, just as was true for the other three variants.”

Pfizer said yesterday its scientists are continuing to develop an Omicron-specific vaccine that could be available by March, and Moderna is doing the same. But even if these tailored boosters are more effective against Omicron—which, for reasons having to do with something called “original antigenic sin,” is not guaranteed—will they actually be necessary? 

Schaffner believes it’s unlikely, but he’s glad the pharmaceutical companies are going through the motions anyways. “There will be opportunities for yet other variants to show up where we might indeed need a tailored vaccine,” he said. “And if the companies have gone through that process once or twice, they could do it a little faster.”

Omicron’s emergence—and its apparent extreme transmissibility—has reignited a debate among public health officials over what the purpose of vaccination ultimately is: to prevent severe disease and death, or limit infection and transmission.

“If we were having a discussion at the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, there would be unanimity in saying goal one is to keep people out of the hospital, keep them from dying, keep them home,” Schaffner said. “Of course, a secondary goal would be to reduce the occurrence of milder infections and reduce transmission as much as possible, that would be ideal. But given the current technology with the vaccines, the goal really is to keep people out of the hospital.”

Offit concurred, but went a step further and expressed frustration with the Biden administration’s prioritization of booster shots for all. “The notion that because of Omicron we need to get a booster dose in healthy young people, that statement is not based on any evidence,” he said. “I just think we’ve not made it clear what the goal of the vaccine is. If the goal of the vaccine is protection against severe disease, we’ve done that. If the goal of the vaccine is protection against any symptomatic disease, then this won’t be the last dose. You’re [only] going to increase neutralizing antibodies for a finite period of time.”

The source of the public confusion likely dates back to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines’ clinical trial data from last year. “Those were three-month studies that Pfizer and Moderna presented,” Offit said. “Those people had just gotten their second dose, so neutralizing antibody titers were high, so protection against mild illness was high. I mean, protection against mild illness was 95 percent—no vaccine does that!”

That transition, combined with the colder weather, means it’s entirely possible that confirmed COVID-19 cases—and breakthrough infections—will begin to skyrocket again in the coming days and weeks. And even if it is confirmed to be a milder strain, an Omicron surge could wreak havoc on hospital systems, as a small percentage (hospitalization rate) multiplied by an enormous number (cases) is often still a pretty significant figure.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re all going to get this virus at one point or another, and it’s better to do so with some Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson coursing through your veins. 

“If you’ve been vaccinated and you have an asymptomatic or mild infection, you just won! That’s great!” Offit said. “If you have a cold that lasts for a few days, even if it knocks you on your butt for a couple days, that’s okay, because you didn’t have to go to the doctor, and you didn’t have to go to the hospital, and you didn’t have to go to the morgue.”

The Select Committee Trying to Fix Congress

Do you consider yourself part of the 75 percent of Americans who disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job? Reps. Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat, and William Timmons, a South Carolina Republican are trying to bring that number down. They are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, formed in 2019 to figure out how to make an increasingly gridlocked institution more effective, collaborative, and transparent.

In today’s Uphill (🔒) , Harvest spoke with the duo about the committee’s latest slate of recommendations, the distrust between parties, rising political violence, and how to break through gridlock.

The Dispatch: When you sit next to someone versus opposite them, you tend to perceive that person as less confrontational and more friendly. During your committee meetings you don’t sit divided by party. How has that affected the dynamic?

Derek Kilmer: I think people’s natural instinct, when they hear something interesting, is to lean over to the person next to them and say, “Hey, that was pretty interesting. What do you think about that?” In our committee, the person you lean over to is someone from a different party. Second of all, we don’t sit on a dais. I’ve never found that I’ve had good conversations speaking to the back of someone’s head. We sit in a roundtable format and that allows people to look each other in the eye and have more collegial and collaborative dialogue on an issue. The other thing that we’ve done is we’ve ditched the five minute speechifying. Our approach has been, let’s use these committee hearings, as I think committees are intended, and that is to learn something. It is much more of a discussion than something that’s just to be used on social media.

The Dispatch: Representative Timmons, your campaign slogan was, “Washington is broken.” If Congress has a hard time agreeing on something like infrastructure, which has had support under multiple Democratic and Republican administrations, do you think that going forward we can only get things done on a party line vote?

Timmons: In any issue that is facing this country, whether it’s ethics reform, whether it’s voting, whether it is infrastructure, spending, you really got to begin by saying, all right, we’re going to lose the 10 percent on either end. You’re never gonna get those people to agree with the middle. So then you say, all right we got 80 percent left. So that’s how the system is supposed to work, and depending on the balance of power, it is 60 percent towards one side or the other. But again, you’re still pursuing 60 percent. And no point in the last year was 60 percent pursued. And again, I mean, back up to 2017, Republicans did the same thing. So that’s why we have never fixed immigration.

The Dispatch: Given the division that has resulted since January 6, how do you go about working with those relationships?

Kilmer: I think the vast majority of members of Congress are concerned about political violence. Before January 6, you saw a gunman shoot up a Republican baseball practice. That type of activity just has no place in our politics. Extremism is something that Congress as an institution and the media and others are all going to be grappling with for a long time. Now, do you throw up your hands and say, “Well, that’s such a gnarly problem, there’s just nothing we can do.” Or do you acknowledge, we’ve identified some problems that make it worse. And let’s try to solve for those.

One of the things that we’ve seen is literally from the time you show up in Congress, it’s made tribal. A member goes through new member orientation, and Republicans are put on the Republican bus and Democrats are put on the Democratic bus and much of the orientation process appears to be an attempt to keep Democrats and Republicans from developing relationships with each other. One of our recommendations has been, let’s have new member orientation and foster some relationship building. One of our recommendations is going to be promoting training opportunities for members on things like conflict resolution.

A strategic intervention that could be helpful is some sort of institutional capacity focused on supporting civility and collaboration. There is not an institutional office within Congress where someone wakes up every day and goes to bed every night thinking about how do we make this a more functional and civil place? Part of the struggle in Congress is not just that there’s disagreement on things we disagree on, sometimes it’s hard to move forward even on things on which we agree.

For Harvest’s full conversation with the congressmen, check out today’s Uphill . And be sure you’re registered to receive our Capitol Hill newsletter by adjusting your subscription preferences here!

Worth Your Time

  • In the Washington Post, Lee Drutman and Yuval Levin make an argument that Jonah is going to love: It’s time to expand the House of Representatives. “In the first Congress, there were just 65 House members, each of whom represented about 30,000 Americans,” they note. “As the nation grew, the House expanded by statute after every decennial census throughout the 19th century. It reached its current size in 1913, when each of its 435 members represented about 210,000 people. But the number of members has not increased since then, even as the country’s population has more than tripled. Each member now represents about 760,000 Americans. And that has changed the very meaning of representation in Congress.”

  • Rich Lowry understands why some on the populist right are drawn to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he argues in his latest Politico column that that fawning admiration is misplaced. “They admire his strength and audacity in advancing Russia’s interests. They think he has the right enemies, namely the same establishment that also scorned Donald Trump. They see in him an antidote to the cosmopolitanism of the European Union, and a bracing reassertion of national sovereignty,” he writes. “The problem with all of this is that it is abstracted from the reality of Putin’s rule, which makes him one of the world’s most cynical and dangerous men and a hideously unworthy steward of the Russian people’s interests. It’s one thing to be opposed to NATO expansion and to be mindful of Russia’s own security interests; it’s another to excuse Putin’s offenses and puff him up into an exemplar of conservative governance that he’s manifestly not. It’s possible for a political leader to defend national sovereignty, pursue an interest-based foreign policy, defend a common national culture and fight against woke insanity without jailing the political opposition, assassinating critics, invading and dismembering neighboring countries, enriching a kleptocracy and installing a de facto dictator for life. These aren’t incidental foibles; they are at the very heart of Putin’s repressive and corrupt regime.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Tucker Carlson aired a lengthy segment on Tuesday that could easily have appeared on Russian state television. He defended Vladimir Putin and his buildup of troops on the Ukraine border, blamed the West for the rising tensions, and criticized President Joe Biden. Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion turned political activist, calls out Carlson. “Contrary to Tucker Carlson’s pleas, Putin’s assault on Ukraine has nothing to do with NATO or any threats real or imagined against Russian borders or national security, about which Putin cares nothing anyway,” he writes. “Like every other decision Putin makes from morning to night, it was about keeping his grip on total power in Russia.”

  • While we’re talking about Russia and Ukraine, Paul Miller writes that the situation is serious and a Russian invasion would shape global politics for years to come. But, he cautions, it’s not a Munich moment—yet.

  • On Thursday’s Remnant, Jonah is joined by A.B. Stoddard of RealClearPolitics for some real rank punditry. Is the Democratic Party on the precipice of imploding? Would Nancy Pelosi stepping down as speaker throw Congress into chaos? Will Trump win reelection in 2024? Why have both parties alienated ordinary voters?

  • Yesterday’s episode of Advisory Opinions features a riveting conversation about whether judges should be able to choose their own replacements. Plus: The Biden administration wades into the Harvard admissions policy case, the Supreme Court hears a case about voucher money and religious schools, and the 9th Circuit weighs in on California’s ban on high-capacity magazines.

Let Us Know

If you’re vaccinated, have you gotten a booster dose? How do you view the role of the vaccine?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).