Omicron Has Arrived
Hello world, it’s your c-c-c-c-c-c-c-c-Covid bomb!
Ain’t it great how the pessimists were so right from day one of the pandemic — and consistently ignored?
Omicron is the exact sort of variant the sorts of scientists who actually study the details and history of epidemics— not applied philosophers like economists or political scientists — have been worried about since the beginning.
Alpha was fifty percent more transmissible than vanilla Covid. Delta was about twice as easy to pass on. Preliminary evidence indicates Omicron is up to five times better at transmitting — that’s Measles level, with an R0 of close to 10 if left uncontrolled.
Even better, over a third of the sites antibodies use to target the virus’ spike structure have mutated. Computer models predict it is going to be capable of immune escape, the question is only to what degree.
All so very, totally predictable — even if scientists hoped it wouldn’t come to pass.
A virus, anything else is evolved by selection pressures in its environment. A pandemic is a war of math. The virus has no intelligence, no agency, it doesn’t try to accomplish anything — it just goes where it goes, and persists if nothing blocks it.
A virus is basically a packet of biochemistry that spreads because its surface is configured just right to break into and colonize our cells. Eventually a host’s immune system detects the intruder and attacks, even going scorched earth in an attempt to get rid of it — this same basic mechanism is why organ transplants can get rejected with fatal consequences.
So the virus, if it is to persist, has to be able to jump between hosts. Upper respiratory viruses rely on the fact that most people get together on a regular basis to leap between hosts and survive.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a real-time experiment in evolution where we’ve all been watching a novel organism be actively shaped by its environment — us.
At the same time, the vital shapers of this environment — mainly political leaders around the globe — haven’t done their damn jobs: wage war on a plague that isn’t going away until we fight to win.
The truth about Covid-19 is that until it is contained, it will keep killing our loved ones, and eventually us, just like the 1918 Influenza still does over a century later.
It will keep evolving, eventually finding and claiming victims whose immune systems are too weak to hold off whatever new variant emerges. Most of us could one day reach 80, the age when Covid-19 mortality starts to dramatically spike and vaccine breakthroughs become far more common.
That is what living with the virus means. That is what making it just like the flu entails.
Shrugging off the deaths of others, hoping in vain that the same fate won’t stalk us.
This, folks, equates to the death of society.
Accepting this cruel state of affairs is a betrayal of the hard work of nurses, doctors, scientists, and our ancestors who fought to give us the tools we have to contain this menace. Under worse conditions with only a fraction of our scientific knowledge, horrible contagions like measles, typhoid, cholera, smallpox, and polio are controlled or even largely eradicated in most or all of the world.
In many ways, government itself is a creature that emerges in human societies primarily to deal with public health issues. As soon as too many people congregate, the danger of polluted water and unchecked infections rise. This is only averted through careful planning of public spaces, constant education about health, and — if needed — quarantines of individuals, households, or neighborhoods where people don’t cooperate.
Governments around the world — but especially in America, have lost that original purpose. Most serve the interests of a few powerful people whose wealth would be impacted if economic, political, or social systems were to radically change.
The American education system is a tragedy and American media is a profit-seeking hot mess of nationalism and wishful thinking. The moment the pandemic started impacting the bottom lines of the wealthy, the race was on to downplay its impacts.
Living with the virus was always a stealthy way to say let the elderly and immune-compromised die so the economy can live.
The irony is that failing to contain Covid has led to trillions of dollars in economic losses. A huge chunk of Americans have shifted their consumption patterns and most of the impacts will be permanent. The country has a death rate worse than any developed and most developing countries.
We’re far enough into this miserable pandemic for the same vicious loop to have replayed enough times to make it terribly simple to predict how the Omicron wave is going to go.
Most of Europe is taking it seriously, re-imposing lockdowns and warning their people to prepare for a tough winter of working from home. America, meanwhile, is being told not to panic — the favorite gaslighting technique of people who know full well the situation is bad but think the real danger is people not shopping.
Nobody is panicking. Politicians say this to make us think doing anything other than what they say to do represents panic. It wouldn’t have been panic to have people start working from home a week sooner in March of 2020. The way exponential growth curves work, tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.
Old school science communicators like Fauci always play the we don’t have all the science card to avoid talking about the implications of difficult evidence far enough in advance to effectively respond. The truth is that the World Health Organization wouldn’t have labeled Omicron a Variant of Concern just days after scientists published their analysis of the new variant if it wasn’t exactly the nightmare virologists have warned was possible for almost two years.
Israel and Japan wouldn’t be barring all foreign travel — regional travel bans are stupid and self-defeating at this point because Omicron is already here — if they didn’t know Omicron looked like a bullet aimed at the skull of the containment efforts they’re already taking.
An R0 twice as potent as Delta’s means outbreaks will be positively explosive. A huge segment of the population with declining immunity will be vulnerable to hospitalization, even if they don’t die. The knock-on effects to other people’s healthcare will be severe, as the medical community is already exhausted.
Every time a new and more dangerous variant has emerged public understanding has been muddied by a tidal wave of wishful speculation that is used to “balance” more pessimistic views that have generally been more right than wrong. Each time the genetic data and models are set against some random expert’s individual judgement of the broader Covid situation, which is always partially colored by their views on how it is best managed.
Only by comparing multiple perspectives can you get a good picture of what is happening. But this isn’t something American media personalities like to do — or teach their audience how to weight and reconcile each to come up with a sound judgement of the situation.
As an example — already the this variant seems to cause mild illness in most line of reasoning is being broadcast as big news in such a way that it makes the more dismal truths about Omicron that have prompted such alarm seem less real. That happened with Delta, too —it isn’t a lie because most Covid infections result in mild cases, but it certainly is misleading given that a mere 1% fatality rate across a population of 330 million is over 3 million if everyone is infected without being vaccinated first.
If as a society you can’t commit to protecting everyone from a threat lethal enough to kill even a thousandth of a percent of the population — well, don’t expect me to ever like that half of my federal income taxes go to “defense” against alleged foreign threats.
How many trillions did the United States pay to prevent another 9/11/2001, a tragedy that directly killed over 3,000 people? Anyone who remembers the national panic on that horrible day knows what it looks like — and how America’s leaders responded with intrusive new bureaucracies and a Forever War.
But ask them to fight something that is actually killing Americans every day and will continue to do so? A measurable, quantifiable, scientifically-demonstrated threat, as opposed to mostly-spurious allegations of evil intent by foreigners or even domestic insurrectionists.
Not a chance.
Fighting Covid-19 is about managing math. The course of the pandemic has always been driven by three key factors:
- How efficiently the virus infects new hosts
- How frequently hosts pass on the virus
- How quickly does the virus mutate
All of the statistics published to track the virus’ spread, like its reproduction number and prevalence in a given population, are outcomes derived from the system governing the virus’ ability to survive, which I represent with the three questions above.
These are not entirely distinct questions, but critical state variables that are connected and changed by feedback mechanisms. Vanilla Covid had an R number of about 2.5, meaning that if left alone every person infected would infect 2.5 other people, causing exponential case growth.
Fortunately, as a virus spreads it essentially consumes fuel — once infected, most people’s immune systems learn to fight it off. Future infections can even be beaten before the virus can take hold in a new host long enough to multiply.
Something absolutely critical about viruses that the American media does a terrible job of explaining — probably because it’s a complicated concept — is the fact that infection depends in part on the amount of virus a new host comes in contact with. This the reason why masks, distancing, ventilation, and time spent near infected have such an impact on respiratory viruses: as soon as the immune system detects any foreign presence
Trouble with SARS-Cov-2 is that our bodies, until vaccinated or infected, don’t know how to detect it. This gives it time to creep into the ACE2 receptors it needs, which are, unfortunately, in most of our organs. Healthy immune systems eventually recognize something is wrong from the fact cells start dying, and respond with a massive immune system response that creates collateral damage in the surrounding tissue — probably the cause of long Covid symptoms.
Vaccines are so powerful because they train our immune systems without putting us at serious risk. You have a one in a million chance of being hurt by a vaccine, but a one in a hundred chance of being killed by Covid-19 if you encounter it unprotected.
They also, as a bonus, help cut down on transmission rates, because a fully boosted immune system has more free-flowing antibodies that will detect and neutralize Covid more quickly, on average, in a vaccinated host. Natural immunity may offer as much protection as vaccines, but might also offer less because vaccines have a consistently high dose of training fluid, while a low-level Covid infection might not be perceived as a major threat by the immune system.
Looking at it this way, it should be clear why the “swiss cheese” strategy for combating Covid-19 is so essential. Vaccines and boosters impact the virus’s ability to acquire new hosts, the speed of spread, and ultimately, how fast it mutates. Masks and social distancing — especially of the permanent, variety, like embracing widespread working and shopping from home — add another layer of protection. Blanket blind testing — literally having everyone take a rapid test every day and send it into a lab, anonymously — then lets public health officials see where the virus is spreading and introduce short-term controls on movement to knock it out.
If it were not for the third parameter, Covid’s mutation rate, the pandemic would have ended months ago. The problem is that the more often a virus replicates, the more chances a descendant will wind up with beneficial mutations that give it a spreading advantage over its cousins.
Some argue this leads inevitably to a kind of benign endemicity — but the evidence for that in this case simply doesn’t yet exist.
Allowing vaccinated and unvaccinated populations to mix basically supercharges this process, making it statistically much more likely a better-adapted variant will emerge and take over, like Delta did. Why? Because being able to bounce back and forth between two environments gives the virus, as an organism, prime conditions for evolving to escape immunity.
Omicron has shocked most of the people who understand what the genetic changes to its composition mean. It represents close to the worst-case outcome foreseen from the start of the pandemic: distinct variants exchanging their genetic material often enough that a child is produced capable of extreme spread and that can evade the immune system’s defenses from prior infection or vaccination.
Although we can’t say with absolute certainty Omicron is going to be a nightmare, it matches what you’d expect from one. Antibodies detect a target in the same way a piece you slide across a nearly-finished puzzle fits into the right spot once found. They are themselves little bundles of biochemistry with active sites that hit one of around 80 target spots on the spike that lets the virus attack our cells.
Delta had mutations in 2–3 of these. Omicron has over 30. This is why immune escape is such a real concern — it should be more resistant to antibodies because it will be statistically harder to find a suitable binding site.
This does not mean total immune escape is likely — what it does mean is that Omicron is likely to transmit better than Delta —about twice as efficiently — and be more resistant to antibodies. This means, on average, higher viral loads that overwhelm more patients with weakened immune systems.
Across a large population, this shows up as a higher reproduction rate and more breakthrough cases. This means herd immunity is extremely difficult, as anyone with a weakened immune system is both more likely to encounter an infected host and more likely to be overcome if infected themselves.
This does not mean the world is back to square one — vaccines will blunt Omicron’s impact, boosters will help, and the new antiviral medications go after a completely different part of the Covid system, though it appears they do the most good if given early on. Those of us fortunate enough to be able to stay mostly isolated from the general public simply have to redouble our caution to avoid the worst of it.
And it is possible that Omicron won’t be the nightmare variant after all, that some unseen factor inhibits its rapid spread.
That’s just not likely at this point, and it is criminally irresponsible to pretend otherwise. Omicron is already in the United States, even if not officially confirmed. When a new variant is detected it’s already been spreading for weeks, and so travelers to South Africa any time since late October at risk.
Closing international borders is essentially pointless — the Omicron wave has begun. And the familiar cycle will repeat.
First the media will tell us not to panic — which we shouldn’t, but that’s not why we’re getting the message. No one wants to see Christmas ruined, and so the authorities will play “we have to wait for the science to be certain” game until case numbers are rising fast.
Next the media will start asking if we’re in another wave — naturally, talking heads will pontificate about whether this is really a wave or just a temporary blip. Only once cases are rising so fast hospitals are in danger of filling up will the media turn to panic mode, asking when the cases will finally peak.
There is still enough raw fuel across America that Delta is already on the march — if Omicron is the beast we fear, it will start out-competing Delta in the next couple months, its spread guaranteed by the holiday season. Especially if prior asymptomatic infection doesn’t confer much long-term immunity, a lot of people are going to catch Covid a second time.
About the time cases finally do peak —when depends on what region you’re in, but I’d estimate February or March for the country as a whole — suddenly the media will be talking up how soon the wave will be over. Hospitalizations will still climb, but in America good news about critical issues likes to push down bad. As soon as cases start going down, the chatter will again shift to wondering how soon we can go back to normal.
In the summer of 2022 the authorities will be back to declaring victory and shaming those of us who remain cautious. But the pandemic only truly ends — stops killing people is the proper definition of when a pandemic ends, endemic is a useless concept outside of scientific texts —if Americans admit that the country’s leadership caste has utterly failed, and finally reject the excuses federal and state officials use to evade responsibility over and over again.
There is only one way to beat Covid-19 or any of the other plagues that threaten our lives, even if we choose to pretend they don’t exist, won’t come for us. America has to go through the pain of organizing and implementing a proper three-month true lockdown lasting through the worst of winter. By the end, a real public health system has to be in place to widespread restrictions aren’t needed.
America has to pay people to stay at home, roll out a mass daily testing system, and actually invest in the tools needed for work and school to be productive while remote instead of complaining about how much it sucks. It’s always going to until the systems are in place to actually integrate it into daily life.
As the old saying goes — you manage what you measure. It is a testament to the hideous failure of America’s state and federal leaders that they haven’t bothered to put in place even the most basic public health infrastructure required to handle this and future pandemics after almost two years of people dying.
This, people, is why America is dying too. A nation is it’s people. And a nation willing to sacrifice so many of its own while probably doing itself more economic harm in the long run simply does not deserve to exist.
Omicron is here, folks. It ought to be a wake-up call. Politicization of public health has to end. Elevation of public health to its proper place as a key function of effective governance is vital.
I would go so far as to say that the only legitimate government is one that commits to this core task.
That, not military spending, constitutes true national strength.