A lengthy diary entry today. You can probably guess why.
But first, it is possibly right around the two year mark since the first official Covid case. Or maybe not – there may have been earlier cases that have not yet been acknowledged by the Chinese as being Covid cases, because they would interfere with their narrative that, no matter what/where/how/when the virus appeared, it absolutely was nothing to do with their germ warfare (sorry, “virus research”) labs in Wuhan.
As the linked article points out, even though the Chinese tested over 80,000 animals to try and find any sort of link between the virus in the wild, in animals; and the virus as it was being caught by people in Wuhan, they failed. But, notwithstanding those extraordinary efforts, and their utter failure, China would still prefer us to believe that the virus came from an animal.
As an interesting coincidence, it is also close to a year since the Delta variant first started appearing in India, in early December 2020. And now, for the second anniversary, our virus gift seems to be the Omicron variant. When I wrote Thursday’s diary entry, it barely got a two paragraph mention, with no-one really being quite certain how serious or alarming the variant might be.
The Omicron Variant
Probably there hasn’t been a lot of new discoveries between Thursday and Sunday, but in the intervening time, the entire world (and the stock market) has shifted to panic mode, notwithstanding the lack of evidence suggesting panic is necessary. Many countries have banned travel from many of the southern African countries. Israel has slammed the door shut and isn’t allowing anyone into its country at all for the next couple of weeks – although this may perhaps be a case of “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted” because it has already detected an in-country case.
The US took a more leisurely approach, although only a few hours on Friday separated Dr Fauci saying it was too soon to decide if any travel restrictions were required and the Administration then announcing a travel ban, but not to take effect until Monday, and with Americans exempted. That’s about as stupid a “ban” as is possible – three days of uncontrolled travel (there’s not even heightened monitoring of arriving African passengers at present), followed by allowing Americans to come and go without restriction. Other countries, when they erect a ban, do so quickly and without exception, even if it means stranding their people inconveniently around the world. There are NZers and Australians who have been wanting to return home for 18 months or more, and still not yet succeeded.
Actually, most travel bans tend to be ineffective, because there is a well-known loophole. If you are in a banned country, you simply travel to a country which still allows you to enter, then change flights and fly from that country to your ultimate destination.
Let’s quickly look at what has happened since Thursday with the omicron variant. To start with the nonsensical, there’s been lots of speculation about why WHO skipped two of the letters in the Greek alphabet. The first skipped letter was “Nu” – it sounding too much like “new”, apparently. And as for the letter after that, “Xi”, ummm, WHO tells us it is a common last name and goodness only knows WHO wouldn’t want to give offense to anyone with that last name, especially Mr Xi Jinping…. (Although, you’d think, if Xi truly is a common last name, there would be less offense taken, even by hypersensitive souls such as Mr Xi – it is like calling a virus variant the Smith variant.)
As for the variant now known as Omicron, and also referred to as B.1.1.529, it was first discovered way back on November 11, in Botswana. It was probably “in the wild” for an unknown time prior to then, and it has rapidly risen to now be the dominant strain in South Africa, particularly in the Gauteng Province (where Jo’burg and Pretoria are located) :
This chart vividly shows the rapid rise, and, more to the point, the much faster rise than with earlier variants. That, combined with what scientists have inferred by the changes to the virus, cause the experts to believe it is much more infectious than the Delta variant. Opinions differ as to how much more infectious, ranging from maybe 50% more to maybe 500% more.
So, that is the first alarming thing – the new Omicron variant is more infectious.
Now for the second point. Some of the changes in the Omicron variant seem likely to be designed to avoid the mRNA vaccines that are out there at present – they are changes to the “spike” protein which is the distinguishing feature the mRNA vaccines target. So it is thought the virus might now be able to circumvent some or much or even all the protection provided by the mRNA vaccines in their present form. That would be alarming, but only for a short while. The mRNA vaccine developers are already pretty much done with developing a different version of their vaccine, before the testing to determine whether or not the virus can indeed “escape” the protection of the present forms of the vaccines has been completed. Testing the current vaccine effectiveness is likely to take a couple of weeks, more or less.
It seems that to get a new version mRNA vaccine approved, all that would be needed is a very brief “safety trial” with perhaps a couple of dozen people in a four – six week trial, and with the new form of vaccine being manufactured while the trial was being conducted, bulk quantities would be available almost as soon as approval was secured. Another commentary suggested about three months from when work starts to when it begins appearing at local clinics.
So perhaps there might be some weeks of difficulty and new case growth until the new vaccine formula appeared, and then more weeks while the new vaccine was distributed and dispensed, but this would be a short term inconvenience, not a new fact of life for the ongoing future.
A related positive point is that because most treatment drugs are not focused on the spike characteristic, they probably will continue to be essentially as effective against the Omicron variant as they are against earlier variants. So hang on to your stockpiled ivermectin.
The third point is a total unknown at this point. There is not yet any understanding as to if the new variant is more or less deadly than the preceding variants. The good news is there is absolutely no evolutionary pressure on the virus to become more deadly. If anything, the less deadly it is, the better the virus can propagate itself, and it already seems that, at least in the early stages, an Omicron infection is not as severe or symptomatic as a Delta or other variant infection (this of course makes it easier for people to be unknowingly infected and pass the virus on to more people).
While there’s always a random chance that something terrible might be lurking in all the new changes to the virus that the Omicron variant has, currently, there is no reason to fear the worst, and some suggestion that, if anything, the Omicron variant might be slightly less deadly.
So, with those points understood, what is the actual reality of any impactful threat to us and the world? The first point here is to note that stopping flights from Africa may help slow the spread of the new variant, but will not stop it. There’s every good chance the variant is already in the US and in most other countries, too. We in the US will be among the last to know, because the health authorities here are surprisingly incurious about knowing what virus variants are active among our population; we don’t test virus samples from infected people as often as in other countries.
But slowing is a worthy objective – it we have to get through perhaps three or four months until new vaccines are plentiful, and with the case numbers potentially doubling maybe every 5 days in a worst case scenario, any degree of slowing down starts to really make a difference.
Some countries are also re-introducing lock-downs to a greater or lesser extent. These will absolutely not stop the virus spreading – if New Zealand was unable to get itself free of the Delta variant after a single case got into the wild, there’s no way countries with less observed/enforced lockdowns can hope to succeed against a more infectious variant. But, same as with travel restrictions or bans, lockdowns can slow the rate of virus growth, which is good. Plus, in your personal case, the more you isolate yourself, the less you are personally at risk.
Masks will continue to be helpful.
To summarize the preceding discussion :
1. The Omicron variant seems to be more infectious than the Delta and other variants.
2. It is probable that current vaccines – particularly the mRNA ones from Pfizer and Moderna – will be less effective against the Omicron variant, but if this is shown to be so, the mRNA “recipe” can be tweaked to create an updated vaccine, a process taking about three months from start of project to start of vaccine availability.
3. Ivermectin and most other treatments that aren’t focused on immune response will likely continue to be as effective as they are at present.
4. We don’t know, but at present there is no reason to expect the Omicron variant to be any deadlier than its predecessor variants.
5. Masks still work. Fresh air flows and social distancing will keep the aerosolized virus away from you, and avoiding crowds helps you beat the odds of being infected.
6. The Omicron variant has already been detected in many countries, and is being identified in more every day. It is probably already in the US, and if it isn’t, it almost surely will be within a week or two, even with the African travel ban.
7. The big concern has to be the potential for a new surge in cases that might overwhelm our already stretched healthcare system. If there are any medical procedures you’ve been deferring, perhaps quickly get them seen to now if your healthcare provider is not yet over-committed to urgent care needs.
Ultimately, this is not a good development, but it is not an “end of the world as we know it” development, either. I talk some more about this and what to do below in the extra content section.
Estonia rose one place in the minor country list.
In the major country list, the US dropped two places, while the Netherlands rose two and both France and the UK rose one.
There were no changes in the death list. And, as always, lots of changes in the activity last week list.
Europe suffered a milder 8% rise in new cases for the last week, with 2.5 million new cases reported. France rose 61%, Portugal 38%, and Luxembourg, Norway and Italy all went up 25%. Germany went up 19%, and the UK went up only 6%. Romania continues to enjoy dropping case numbers, with another 30% drop, and its death numbers are also starting to follow suit, with a 32% drop in deaths, too. Slovenia went down 26%, Ukraine dropped 23%, Estonia 21% and Austria 11%.
In North America, Canada had a mild 5% rise in cases, and Mexico a stronger 19% rise. I can’t start to guess about the US, which hasn’t had a “real” number reported since Tuesday (due to Thanksgiving) but at that point, it was reporting an 11% rise.
Botswana, where the Omicron variant was first spotted, had a 38% drop in cases for the week, with an extraordinarily low case rate of 192 cases per million people. But South Africa, where the variant is taking hold, gives us a hint about what might be about to spread elsewhere in the world, with a 250% rise in new cases, although even after that massive jump, it was reporting only 229 cases per million.
The world as a whole saw a 1% drop in cases.
Top Case Rates Minor (population under 10 million) Countries (cases per million)
|Rank||One Week Ago||Today|
|1||Montenegro (246,361)||Montenegro (249,727)|
|4||Gibraltar (205,481)||Gibraltar (213,172)|
|5||Georgia (204,157)||Georgia (210,799)|
|8||San Marino||San Marino|
|10||Estonia (163,718)||Maldives (165,120)|
Top Case Rates Major (population over 10 million) Countries (cases per million)
|Rank||One Week Ago||Today|
|1||Czech Republic (185,841)||Czech Republic (197,734)|
|2||USA (145,620)||Netherlands (151,242)|
|3||UK (143,980)||UK (148,373)|
|4||Netherlands (142,097)||USA (147,122)|
|12||Turkey (100,137)||Turkey (102,155)|
Top Death Rate Major Countries (deaths per million)
|Rank||One Week Ago||Today|
|1||Peru (5,976)||Peru (5,981)|
|2||Czech Republic (2,988)||Czech Republic (3,058)|
|3||Romania (2,884)||Romania (2,953)|
|4||Brazil (2,854)||Brazil (2,861)|
|5||Argentina (2,543)||Argentina (2,545)|
|7||USA (2,378)||USA (2,395)|
|8||Belgium (2,279)||Belgium (2,302)|
|9||Mexico (2,236)||Mexico (2,246)|
|10||Italy (2,207)||Italy (2,215)|
Top Rates in New Cases Reported in the Last Week (new cases per million) for Countries over one million population
|Rank||One Week Ago||Today|
|1||Slovenia 10,838||Czech Rep 11,871|
|2||Austria 10,681||Slovakia 10,583|
|3||Czech Rep||Austria 9,547|
|12||Greece 4,544||Germany 4,809|
The rest of this newsletter is for the very kind Travel Insider Supporters – it is their support that makes all of this possible, and it seems fair they get additional material in return. If you’re not yet a Supporter, please consider becoming one, and get instant access to the rest of the Diary Entry, all the additional material on previous diary entries, and much extra content on other parts of the website too.
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Items below include a special section on preparing for the Omicron (or any other variant), a look at “anti-idiotype antibodies” and their possible role in strange rises in heart attacks, molupiravir spectacularly surprises in ongoing testing, growing appreciation of natural immunity, if aspirin is controversial, can we hope for consensus on any other treatment for any other thing, Novavax, a claim the virus will “fade away” next year, a dire emergency in Canada, and a state of emergency in New York.
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