The Morning Dispatch: What We Know About the Omicron Variant

Happy Monday! We hope you spent your usual TMD-reading time the past couple of days watching the new Beatles documentary on Disney+. Many people are saying TMD is doing to morning newsletters what the Beatles did to music 50 years ago. 

And Happy Hanukkah to all our members who are celebrating!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Biden administration announced Friday the United States will reimplement travel restrictions on non-U.S. citizens from eight African countries after South African scientists identified a heavily mutated COVID-19 strain that the World Health Organization labeled Omicron and designated as a “variant of concern.”

  • A Georgia jury on Wednesday found Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020. All three men will be sentenced to life in prison, and still face federal hate crime charges.

  • The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported Wednesday that consumer spending increased 1.3 percent from September to October and personal income rose 0.5 percent over the same period. Initial jobless claims, meanwhile, decreased by 71,000 week-over-week to a 52-year-low of 199,000 last week, according to the Labor Department.

  • Social Democrat Olaf Scholz is officially set to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the coming days after he reached an agreement last week to form a governing coalition with the Greens and Free Democratic Party. Scholz emphasized his pandemic response plan in his first appearance as designated chancellor, describing the situation in Germany as “bleak.”

  • A bipartisan group of five U.S. lawmakers—Reps. Elissa Slotkin, Mark Takano, Colin Allred, Nancy Mace, and Sara Jacobs—met with Taiwanese government officials last week in an unannounced trip to the island. Slotkin said the Chinese Embassy warned her office the trip would “cause huge damage to the China-US relations and the peace and stability of Taiwan Straits.” Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said 27 Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense zone on Sunday, causing the Taiwanese air force to scramble its combat aircraft. 

  • Pharmaceutical company Merck said Friday that in a final clinical trial analysis, its oral COVID-19 antiviral pill—molnupiravir—only reduced the risk of hospitalization and death in high-risk COVID-19 patients by 30 percent, not 50 percent as previously reported.

  • The White House released data on Wednesday claiming 92 percent of the federal workforce’s 3.5 million employees had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by the Biden administration’s November 22 deadline to be fully vaccinated. “For those employees who are not yet in compliance, agencies are beginning a period of education and counseling, followed by additional enforcement steps,” the White House said.

  • Axios reported last week that five Democratic senators—Jon Tester, Mark Warner, Kyrsten Sinema, John Hickenlooper, and Mark Kelly—informed Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown they oppose Saule Omarova’s nomination to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, all but sinking the Biden administration’s controversial pick to oversee bank regulation.

  • President Biden announced Wednesday his intent to nominate acting Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shalanda Young to permanently fill the position. The Senate originally voted 63-37 to confirm Young as deputy OMB director back in March.

  • Stephen Sondheim, a lyricist and composer best known for his work on critically acclaimed musicals such as Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Gypsy, and Into the Woods, died Friday at the age of 91. Former Rep. Carrie Meek of Florida died Sunday at the age of 95, as did prominent fashion designer Virgil Abloh at the age of 41.

Is It Time to Worry About Omicron? ‘We Don’t Know’

(Photo by Andriy Onufriyenko via Getty Images.)

In the roughly two years since the first known case of COVID-19 was detected in Wuhan, China, the virus that causes the disease has undergone a number of mutations. Some of these variants—Lambda, for example—fizzled without much fanfare, while others decidedly did not. Late last week—as Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving—scientists in South Africa sounded the alarm about yet another modification.

“[The B.1.1.529 variant] has a very high number of mutations with a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” Tulio de Oliveira—director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation—told reporters in an impromptu briefing, noting the variant was spreading rapidly and had already been detected in Botswana, South Africa, and Hong Kong. A World Health Organization (WHO) advisory group convened one day later, designating B.1.1.529 a “variant of concern” and—skipping past Nu and Xi in the Greek alphabet—labeling it Omicron. 

The world panicked. President Biden proclaimed the United States would reimplement travel restrictions on non-U.S. citizens from eight African countries, and Japan, Israel, and Morocco announced they were once again closing their borders to foreigners entirely. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a fresh state of emergency in anticipation of the variant reaching the United States’ shores, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the United Kingdom will be “tightening up” its masking and traveling rules once again. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst day of the year on Friday, falling more than 900 points—or 2.5 percent—on the news.

As of early Monday morning, the Centers for Disease Control had yet to identify any Omicron cases in the United States. But with the variant showing up in Germany, Italy, the UK, Australia, Canada, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands over the weekend, it’s only a matter of time. Dr. Anthony Fauci told NBC News Saturday he “would not be surprised” if Omicron was already here.

When we inevitably get that “First Omicron COVID-19 Case Detected in the United States” news alert on our phones later today or tomorrow, will it mark a deadly new stage in the pandemic? Or will we look back on this moment in several months and be grateful Omicron went the way of Lambda? For now, the only truthful answer is that it’s impossible to say.

“If I was writing an article on this, the title would be ‘We Don’t Know,’ because that basically sums up almost everything,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a clinical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto, told The Dispatch. Fauci more or less admitted the same on Sunday, telling Biden it will take “approximately two more weeks” before we have “more definitive information” on the variant.

In an interview with The Dispatch, Dr. Monica Gandhi—an infectious disease specialist at the University of California San Francisco—separated the impending lines of scientific inquiry regarding Omicron into three distinct categories: “Is it more transmissible? Is it more virulent? And will it evade the vaccines?”

To answer all three, it’s important to understand precisely what it is about Omicron that sets it apart from other variants of concern. Per South Africa’s Network for Genomic Surveillance, the B.1.1.529 strain of the virus—which some researchers believe evolved inside the body of someone with H.I.V.—exhibits more than 50 mutations from the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, including 30 mutations on its spike protein alone. 

“That’s the biggest concern, because the spike is so important for all the vaccines,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Basically whatever vaccine we have—mRNAs, J&J—they’re all based on the spike protein. And they’re all based on the spike protein sequence from the Wuhan parent virus.”

More pertinent than the number of mutations, however, is what those mutations do. “The number of them is one thing,” Bogoch said. “Some of the actual mutations themselves are associated with chipping away at immunity, and perhaps creating a virus that would facilitate easier reinfection. Others may be associated with greater transmissibility.”

But the fact that the variant’s mutations “may be associated” with those traits doesn’t automatically spell doom—far from it. Bogoch cautioned that it’s “way too early” to draw sweeping conclusions about Omicron’s clinical manifestations with slightly more than 200 confirmed cases worldwide, but the extremely limited evidence we do have on virulence is heartening.

Dr. Angelique Coetzee—the chair of the South African Medical Association who was among the first to identify the new strain—told Reuters over the weekend that most Omicron patients she’s been treating are experiencing “very, very mild” headache and fatigue symptoms, and no major drop in oxygen levels or loss of taste. South Africa’s Health Minister Dr. Joe Phaahla cautioned that the youth of most patients thus far could be contributing to the lack of symptoms, but added he’d also heard from doctors that the “majority of the people they’ve been seeing are mild.”

If that finding holds, Gandhi sees a historical parallel. “It’s really hard for a variant to become more transmissible and more virulent,” she said. “For it to be more mild, that would be an amazing hope, because in a way, that’s how the 1918 influenza pandemic ended. It just became more mild and burned out.”

That won’t happen anytime soon if Omicron renders moot all the immunity we’ve built up over the past two years, but experts on Sunday expressed cautious optimism on that front as well. “Your B-cells are very adaptable and they’ll develop antibodies that are evolved towards the variant that they see,” Gandhi said. “T-cells, the other arm of the immune response, are really in breadth and they line up across the spike protein. So even if we have 32 that are knocked out [by mutations], we still usually have about 100 T-cells that are formed in response to the vaccine.”

Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have said in recent days the mRNA technology that underlies their COVID-19 vaccines would allow them to roll out a booster targeted specifically at Omicron by early 2022, though it’s unclear at this point if that will be needed. “If you talk to people in vaccine circles, people who are working on a vaccine, they have a pretty good degree of confidence that a booster vaccine—so three full doses of vaccine—is going to be fairly protective against this new variant,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb—former head of the Food and Drug Administration and Pfizer board member—told CBS News on Sunday, noting the companies will likely publish studies testing the existing vaccines’ efficacy within a week. 

Gottlieb added the variant appears to have been detected “very early” in the process, a fact that led public health officials across the board to express gratitude to their counterparts in South Africa. “If South Africa had not reported this, it isn’t clear that anybody else necessarily would have picked it up,” Beyrer said, pointing out the country has a particularly sophisticated virology infrastructure due to decades of H.I.V. research. “It’s extraordinary how good their science is, and we should really be applauding that and be grateful that they picked this thing up when they did.”

South Africa isn’t feeling the love. “This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the country’s Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation said in a statement, arguing that Omicron could have originated anywhere in the region before being detected in South Africa. Andy Slavitt—formerly a senior COVID-19 advisor in the Biden administration—criticized his old boss’ decision in a Twitter thread on Saturday.

“Banning travel hasn’t seemed to be anything close to a panacea. And it punishes countries and their economies who make and report discoveries,” he wrote. “We (the G20) couldn’t vaccinate Africa fast enough despite abundant vaccines & so now we will increase the costs to them of our failure.”

Bogoch understands the impulse to jump to conclusions and spring into action, even if he doesn’t agree with it. “It’s pretty clear that people don’t fare well with uncertainty,” he said. “It’s not just government. It’s government, [much] of the population at large, many healthcare providers, many scientists. … There’s collective anxiety and anger and other emotions that have really built up over two years of this, so it’s not ideal.”

“This could be a problem, there’s a reason it’s a variant of concern,” he continued. “Then again? Who knows. We’ll find out.”

Worth Your Time

  • Freddie deBoer’s latest Substack newsletter laments the wasted potential of internet writing in the digital age, which he argues should have ushered in an era of unprecedented creativity but has instead created a positive feedback loop for hot takes and clickbait. The number one culprit: Twitter. “People think I hate everybody in media, but there are tons of brilliant and talented and perceptive people,” he writes. “The trouble is that their diseased social culture causes them to live in fear, fear of stretching out, fear of transcending what they’ve done before, because the final destination of all of their work is a terrible grinding machine of unhappiness, a collection of little people who peck and claw at everything everyone else does, looking for the slightest hint of pretention and in so doing destroying the potential for ambition.”

  • At a time when Americans are increasingly inclined to discount people with different backgrounds and lived experiences, Richard A. Friedman—a professor of clinical psychology—proposes an exercise in empathy. In a piece for the Washington Post, Friedman encourages readers to ask questions, listen with intentionality, and avoid emotional reactions when faced with views with which they disagree. “Empathy offers a pass out of our seemingly intractable conflicts,” he writes. “Consider, say, your friend who refuses to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Unlike sympathy, which is feeling pity or sorrow for another’s misfortune, empathy doesn’t require an emotional response. Nor does it mean that you have to agree with or even like the person you were trying to communicate with. You just have to be open and curious enough to get a sense of another’s mind.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In last week’s Thanksgiving-themed Capitolism, Scott Lincicome reminds Americans they have a whole lot to be thankful for, including greater long-term purchasing power, higher living standards, and less food insecurity and poverty than generations past. “Even in a time of relatively high inflation and higher food prices, things are still better today than they were just a few years ago,” he writes. “And much better than they were decades before that.”

  • In Sunday’s French Press, David shares a story explaining why Thanksgiving holds special significance to the French family. On the first day of David’s deployment to Iraq—Thanksgiving day, 2007—his youngest daughter, Naomi Konjit, was born to a single mother in southern Ethiopia. “On November 22, 2007, one life changed, one life began, yet God remained the same—sovereign, loving, and directing the steps of a father and child,” David writes.

Let Us Know

What was your initial reaction when you heard the Omicron variant news last week? Anxiety? Frustration? Resignation? Indifference? Something else?

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).

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