Mutate, Update, Repeat: The Flu-ture of COVID

December 7, 2021

You may know it as the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet, but you’ll soon know “Omicron” in another context; it’s the designation of the latest virulent variation of coronavirus sweeping the globe. First reported after Thanksgiving in southern Africa, the new variant has already reached 17 states in the U.S.A. -- even though the Biden administration imposed travel bans on eight African nations.

Despite the ominous-sounding name, there may be no cause for alarm in the new variant. Even Dr. Fauci the Fear Fanatic sounded hopeful this weekend, noting, “thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it.” The stock market, too, seems optimistic. The Dow Jones average tumbled nearly 1,800 points in the four trading days after Omicron was named a variant of concern but has regained over 1,200 points and counting based on reports that it is milder.

Of course, the stock market is nearly never a reliable guide for sound decision-making. For those who care about making informed decisions, Dr. Jeff Barrows of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations spelled out the three major questions we need to answer. First, “Is it more transmissible?” Early evidence seems to show it is. Second, “How well are our vaccines going to do against it?” That is literally a billion-dollar question for vaccine manufacturers. While the data are not yet in, Barrows said that it’s “more than likely the antibodies… are not going to be quite as effective against this new variant.” That’s because they target the virus’s spike protein, which has over 30 mutations in the Omicron variant.

The third question is, “Is this variant more dangerous?” The human body responds to viruses with a one-two punch, explained Barrows. Antibodies are the first line of defense. The virus might evade these by changing its outer shell, but a strong cellular immune system response will still protect infected persons against hospitalization or severe illness. “We have such a strong cellular immunity against this particular virus,” he said, so it doesn’t seem like it will be more dangerous.

It’s always refreshing to hear an expert explain the science so non-experts can understand, a refreshment rarely served up by public health officials. Representatives of the Biden administration returned to a well-worn talking point: get vaccinated. “We’re urging people to get vaccinated and boosted,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said on Fox News Sunday. Yet he admitted in the same sentence, “we’re trying to figure out the exact level of protection our vaccines will give against Omicron.” I’m trying to figure out how leading the science is following the science.

“What I would like to see,” said Barrows, is the pharmaceutical manufacturers “develop a new formulation of their vaccine that would incorporate these new mutations in the spike protein.” He must be on Santa’s “nice” list, because they’re already doing just that. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, invented the most destructive response: mandating vaccines for all private employees in the city, beginning on the Monday after Christmas. Perhaps he figured he was already getting a stocking full of coal.

“We have to be careful that the government doesn't take advantage of this quote: ‘emergency,’” warned Barrows. A global, milder, mutating coronavirus won’t be stamped out by extreme measures. It’s here for the long run. Similar to the flu, Barrows explained the covid shot is “going to be a regular booster,” which “should be evolving along with the virus.” We’re going to have to learn to live with it sooner or later. Why not now?