Every now and then an obvious comparison yields teachable moments. The current occupant of the Oval Office (the one with a desk, not a porcelain throne) has declared that travel to the US from a number of South African nations is not OK. After all, the Omicron Variant was first publicly reported there by the drive-by media. Certainly if we keep South Africans out of the US, the evil Omicron virus will be contained. And all God’s children said, “Amen.”
But early last year, when President Trump banned travel from China as the Fauci Flu outbreak began, the His Eminence, the Lord High Priest of Science declared that Trump was being “xenophobic.” At that time, the public information was that COVID was in China. There was a prima facie case to be made that stopping travel from China might keep COVID out of the US. By March, that premise was blown apart by the outbreak in the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington. If it managed to get there, stopping travel was meaningless. Workers and family members were presumably infected, as were the hundreds of other people they met on a daily basis. The horse was out of the barn.
Unfortunately, various travel bans were expanded and revised by almost all governments around the globe. And every one of them failed miserably. Italy had hundreds of elderly filling all the available hospital beds. New York panicked over the perceived lack of ventilators for critically ill patients. And President Trump helped out by setting up a field hospital in the Javits Center and parking a hospital ship in New York. Somehow the drive-by media forgot to report that those resources simply went to waste, as they were not needed. The pestilence was not quite up to Black Plague standards.
As we hear all sorts of fear-mongering about Omicron, the media seem hell-bent to rewrite the story of the “deadly” Delta variant. The fact that India defeated Delta for $8 a person using Ivermectin is lost on them. The fact that the spike in deaths with Delta was significantly lower than Alpha was just as firmly impressed on the public by talking heads. In other words, if it doesn’t fit the narrative, lie. Make it fit the narrative. Spin is too light a word for it.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on this, but Omicron is already documented in China, most of Europe, Canada, and the US. In short, this bird has flown. No travel ban, forced quarantine, or vaccine passport will have any effect on its spread. We haven’t documented our first case, but you can make book on it already being here. But when did facts have anything to do with political actions?
There are several questions that have to be asked. The first is, “How did the variant arise?” Put bluntly, viruses are always mutating. Like all mutations, including dozens catalogued with COVID, most simply fail because they offer no advantage. But if a change makes the virus more infectious, that will improve its survival. If at the same time it becomes less deadly, that helps as well. In short, COVID is following the basic rule of Muller’s Ratchet. And make no mistake, just because it was first discovered in one place doesn’t mean that it has to travel from there to get to us. The conditions for mutation exist everywhere. It’s just as easy for it to pop up here as there. Multiple outbreaks can simply be multiple discoveries of a universal process.
Viruses will mutate to become more infectious but less virulent. In plain English, that’s “easier to catch but less likely to make you really sick.” That’s what we saw with Delta, and almost certainly what we’ll see with Omicron. COVID is on the way to becoming the common cold (another coronavirus!). A little muscle ache, maybe a headache and a fever, but not much more. And that’s roughly what is being described for Omicron.
Let’s recap why this is happening. Any biological “organism” survives because it is well suited for survival. In the case of viruses (not technically “organisms”), the more hosts they infect, the better their chance of survival. But if they kill those hosts, it’s hard for the virus to move to another host. That’s why Ebola had outbreaks, but never epidemics. Its hosts died without much opportunity to pass the virus on. So if the new hosts don’t get as sick, there’s a bigger chance to get passed on, because the mildly ill host will continue with daily life, exposing new hosts. And that exposure is less of a problem, because the bug has become milder.
With all the mutations on Omicron, 30 on the spike alone, current vaccines won’t work very well. The Fauci Ouchy was designed to protect against the spike for the original bug, and this spike is a lot different. The fact that a spike with two mutations gets less benefit from the vax shows that thirty mutations will probably make it useless. It doesn’t matter how many how many “boosters” you get, they won’t be vaccines for the same virus.
We’ve seen this with flu. Experts guess which “strains” (Translation: “variants”) will be most likely this year, and a flu vaccine for them gets mixed up. Several years ago, the guesstimate missed, and the flu vax wasn’t much help. That is what we’re up against with Omicron.
There are so many strains of COVID that we can’t keep up. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about vaccines or visitors. Viruses ignore travel bans. We’ve known that for centuries because quarantines, a local form of travel ban, don’t work all the well, either. Diseases are caused by bugs that are waaaay too small to see, and can hitch rides on almost anything. They can change in ways we can’t see, and pop up in new places with no apparent connection to where we’ve seen them before.
Donald Trump’s travel ban was misguided. It should have been dropped when the first cases in the US were documented. Joe Biden’s travel ban is stupid. He failed to learn any lessons from Trump’s ban, and is now obviously trying to stick his finger in the dike when water is flooding on all sides.
You cannot control diseases. You can only try to find the best way to live with them.
Ted Noel MD is a retired Anesthesiologist/Intensivist who podcasts and posts on social media as DoctorTed and @vidzette.