The COVID-19 pandemic is showing no signs of stopping as a new variant, Omicron, surfaced over the past week. Meanwhile, Republican governors continue banning mask mandates, essentially “killing their supporters for political points,” Moulitsas said. With the new Omicron variant throwing a wrench into reopening plans and vaccination efficacy, countries are once again taking steps to limit travel and protect their citizens from a potentially more dangerous strain of COVID-19. Yet, information about the new variant is still limited—what do we actually know about it, and how should we proceed?
Zelaya asked about how to break through to people who remain unvaccinated. Sumner revealed he has two family members who are currently hospitalized with COVID-19; their family has begged them to get vaccinated, but they did not. The undeniable truth, he noted, is that large groups unvaccinated people are affecting our ability to do away with the coronavirus for good.
In a recent piece, Sumner urges that we cannot let COVID become endemic; instead, we must eradicate it completely because it remains consistently dangerous to society. “[There is this belief] that over time, viruses become weaker … but that’s not the way this works,” noting that a virus like smallpox is just as virulent today as it was 12,000 years ago. “We really can’t expect anything different out of COVID-19.”
“I’m wondering if the variants have shown, from what you’ve been able to see, any higher impact on children than the original [variant of] COVID-19 that we were dealing with,” Zelaya said.
Sumner replied that children seem to be at heightened risk, especially now with the Delta variant:
You’re certainly seeing a change in who’s getting infected. Children under 18 make up about 22% of the population. Up to this point, about 16% of all the COVID-19 cases that have tested positive have been in children under 18, so they’ve underperformed in terms of being infected … but if you look right now, it’s about 25%. Part of that could be that the variants are getting better at targeting kids, but a big part of it is probably that kids are a big unvaccinated populations, so it’s really hard to break out those two effects.
Moreover, he argued that we cannot simply move on to learning to live with the virus:
The difference is just an order of magnitude. A bad flu year, you might see 30,000 to 40,000 people die, but what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that COVID-19 is going to kill ten times that every year. And even if we get some new pills, we get better vaccines, or we keep that number somewhat depressed, you’re talking about things that cause long-term disabilities. It is incredibly disruptive—people get really sick.
Much remains to be learned about the Omicron variant, though there are some signs that it may be more mild than the Delta variant. As Sumner elaborated, “maybe it’s on par with Delta, maybe it will displace Delta—we just don’t know yet. When it comes to how virulent it is, we’ve had one doctor [say] … symptomwise it was very different from what they were seeing from Delta—more flulike symptoms, but so far they hadn’t really seen the level of death and serious disease that they were seeing with Delta.”
Moulitsas wondered about the concept of virus variants sort of cannibalizing one another. “Can they coexist, are they competing with each other?” he asked.
According to Sumner, they seem to be able to coexist, though having had the Delta variant does not preclude one from contracting the Omicron variant of the virus. Omicron is more different from Delta than Delta was from Alpha, though each variant is simply competing with one another in trying to infect the most people. He also acknowledged that people have brought up the idea of going back to “chicken pox parties”—which is a terrible idea for dangerous viruses like COVID-19 (it’s a bad idea for chicken pox, too).
“When is this all going to be over? Is this just going to be our new normal?” Zelaya asked. “Is this like like our flu, or is it like a disease like smallpox that we can really at some point potentially bring down to a point where I don’t worry about [it]?”
Sumner noted that the reality is somewhere in between, though it is not socially, economically, or medically sustainable to go through this all the time:
[We would] lose hundreds of thousands of people. So we can’t do that. On the other hand, smallpox was unique … and you got the vaccine, you were vaccinated for life. Like, I said, 3.2 million people died from smallpox at the start of the last century, and by the end of the century it was basically eradicated … it’s going to make it very hard to make [COVID-19] essentially extinct. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make it something like mumps and measles.
In closing, Moulitsas inquired about any signs that might give us hope with regards to better treatment or protection from contracting the virus: “Is there anything on the horizon that would help bring more normalcy [to our lives]?”
Sumner explained that “we’ve had just recently a couple of antivirals announced that are available … there are a couple of antidepressants that have had promising results.” With these antidepressants, it could be that they affect where the virus latches on. Early testing has produced positive signs, though is it not clear yet how the mechanism operates.
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