An Airborne Vaccine?
COVID-19 has ebbed and flowed. Originally, we were warned it could be a Black Death-style disaster; it turned out to be more like a very serious influenza season, with perhaps two or three times the mortality of a normal flu, mostly concentrated among the elderly—a nontrivial social cost, but still a manageable situation.
At various times, it also appeared that we were out of the woods. The grim experience of New York in early 2020 was not repeated in most of the rest of the country. Rather, the initial wave came and went far less dramatically, with the vast majority of people either not getting infected or not becoming seriously ill.
But COVID has a way of making a mockery of predictions. Because, after a brief reprieve, it resumed: first in the summer of 2020 in the South, and then, later, nationwide.
At the end of 2020, vaccines came online. These novel vaccines appeared to be working, as cases soon declined. Of course, the decline in cases could have also just been a coincidental event based on the natural rise and fall of cases in every pandemic. By early summer 2021, though, things had gone so well—whether because of vaccines, natural immunity, or a combination of both—that Joe Biden more or less declared victory over the coronavirus.
Then, in spite of widespread vaccine uptake, the Delta surge arrived. We were told vaccines prevented death and disease at high rates, but the totals of mortality with Delta exceeded those of earlier waves. Statistical tricks made this appear to be a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” but that was only because estimates included cases from earlier in 2021, when fewer people were vaccinated, and many were catching the earlier (and deadlier) Beta variant.
None of the data really squared with the claims of vaccine efficacy. One would expect at least some significant downturn in cases, and certainly in death and hospitalization, if the vaccine were truly 95 percent effective and something like 75 percent of adults had the vaccine. It turned out the vaccines lost efficacy quickly and barely put a dent in the spread of Delta. The vaccine promoters (and mandaters) overpromised and under delivered, and continue to do so.
Then came Omicron. Appearing first in South Africa, it apparently spread far and wide, eventually displacing Delta there and now also in the United States, where it currently makes up 78 percent of COVID cases. New York recently recorded the highest number of COVID cases ever.
But in South Africa, something peculiar happened. Deaths did not rise. Hospitalizations occurred at significantly lower rates than in earlier waves. Most people had cold symptoms. This data is easily verified. Similarly in the UK, as cases have increased, deaths have remained flat, perhaps soon to decline as Omicron crowds out the last of Delta.
In other words, Omicron’s appearance is part of the normal and expected evolution of viruses: one towards greater transmissibility and lower mortality, a process called antigenic drift. A similar mutated strain apparently wiped out the Spanish flu bug.
Even as it appears monoclonal antibody treatments developed to mitigate earlier waves of COVID may not prove useful in treating the Omicron variant, the push to keep the old vaccines developed to combat earlier strains of COVID continues. This is not really logical. If the antibodies developed to fight the earlier virus once it appears do not work as treatments, why would a similar process to create such antibodies through vaccines work in the pre-treatment?
Of course, there is a lot of money in these vaccines. And there is a strong antipathy to admitting mistakes of approach and imagination among the medical establishment. Even without addressing the question of vaccine risks, vaccines should, at the very least, actually do something useful.
Vaccines don’t appear to do much to stop the spread; in Denmark, the rates of Omicron infection appear about the same among the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. There is some evidence, in fact, that prior illness or receiving the vaccines makes it more likely that someone will get Omicron.
The push for vaccines is becoming more draconian, even as the blessing of an apparently much safer COVID variant is upon us. Getting Omicron may involve some discomfort, but so do vaccines, and Omicron appears an order of magnitude less deadly than the earlier strains. Some studies say it is 30 to 40 times less likely to cause hospitalization and death than earlier variants.
We know prior infection with other strains appears to provide durable immunity against reinfection and at least some immunity as between the Beta and Delta strains. Will that work for Omicron? Perhaps yes and perhaps no. The inefficacy of earlier (Beta and Delta) infection to prevent Omicron may apply both ways, leaving those who come down with Omicron theoretically vulnerable to earlier strains.
But, as with Delta, Omicron may wipe out other strains of the coronavirus, even if the antibodies created in response to it do not attack it directly. This phenomenon is known as viral interference. If Omicron were to interfere with and outcompete the other strains, the mechanism may prove immaterial, if its rapid growth and spread deprive the older, more dangerous strains of COVID of a host. The population-wide effect would provide significant protection for everyone. Something like this—the emergence of a new, less deadly strain of the virus—is what ultimately stopped the Spanish flu. The virus persisted in this weakened, endemic state, but never repeated the mortality numbers of 1918.
In other words, if Omicron were to crowd out the Beta and Delta variants due to its high infectiousness for a very modest cost in terms of disease outcomes, Omicron would be like an airborne vaccine, albeit a naturally occurring one. And it would deliver substantially larger and faster benefits than the expensive and controversial mRNA vaccine campaigns currently underway.
While the actual effects and course of the disease appears orthogonal to the attitudes of public policy makers, the true elimination of cases, hospitalization, and death would make their push for continued masking and mandatory vaccination less and less tenable.
This would truly be a Christmas miracle.