Nov 29, 2021

The Omicron variant.

The Omicron variant.

What do we know? And how should we respond?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're going to be covering the new Covid-19 variant. Plus, a question about the Rittenhouse media coverage and our week of giving!

Photo by DarkoStojanovic on Pixnio
Photo by DarkoStojanovic on Pixnio 

Happy Hanukkah.

Tonight will mark the second night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. There's an old joke in Judaism that every holiday follows this basic script: "They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!" Hanukkah fits into that mold, but it is also fundamentally a story about religious freedom — fighting for the rights to practice your faith even against insurmountable odds. I hope we always live in a country that values and stands for such freedoms. Chag Sameach!


Let's give a little.

In honor of Giving Tuesday, one of the most charitable days of the year, Tangle will be donating 50% of all new subscription revenue and "tips" this week to Heavenly HRVST, one of my favorite charities that provides delicious shelf-stable meals to the hungry in New York City and across the east coast. I've met and interviewed their founder, John Doherty, and even tried their meals, which are fantastic. It's a great organization that we love to support.

You can subscribe to Tangle by clicking here or drop something in our tip jar by clicking here.


Quick hits.

  1. Congress returns from holiday break facing a slew of deadlines, including the need to avoid a government shutdown, lift the debt ceiling and advance President Biden's social and climate spending bill. (The deadlines)
  2. The killers of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty on 23 of 27 charges last week. (The verdict)
  3. Major stock indexes and oil prices began to rebound on Monday after a major sell-off on news of the Omicron variant. (The rebound)
  4. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed he has uncovered a plot to overthrow his government next week. (The allegations)
  5. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is expected to step down from his executive role. (The news)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The Omicron variant. Over the weekend, several countries around the world implemented new Covid-19 travel restrictions over fears of the newest variant, despite little knowledge of how contagious it is or where exactly it is present. Omicron was first detected in South Africa, which has one of the most sophisticated screening systems in the world (it's a presumption to say it "originated" there — more likely, they were just the first to discover it). Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Canada have all also detected the variant, according to Reuters.

Beginning Monday, the U.S. will restrict non-U.S. citizens and residents from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi from traveling into the states. Israel has banned all foreigners from entry. Australia restricted travelers from several African countries and the U.K. reintroduced mask mandates and PCR tests for all travelers. In response to the restrictions, the stock market also tumbled last week.

The variant is raising concerns among scientists because it carries at least 30 mutations on the virus's spike protein, which is the mechanism that helps it bind to human cells. The World Health Organization called it a "variant of concern" on Friday, saying it could present a higher risk of a person contracting Covid-19 a second time.

Still, though, very little is yet known about Omicron. Epidemiologists have said it will take weeks to gather data on the variant and understand if it spreads more easily, evades vaccines at a higher rate, or causes more serious cases of Covid-19. So far, we don't know whether any of those things are true. We do know that past variants like Delta have caused new surges of the virus and become the dominant strain in both Europe and the U.S. The WHO is naming variants after Greek letters, though some (like Mu) didn’t make headlines and others (like Xi) are being skipped (there was fear over confusion with Xi Jinping, the leader of China).

Now, I know many people like to say that Covid-19 "should not be political" and instead discussion about the virus should lead with science. And I agree. But the response to Covid-19 is being driven primarily by governments, and the virus’s impact on our country cannot be detached from our politics. So for the purposes of this newsletter I am trying to mix both the scientific assessments at play (i.e. "the experts") with the political punditry related to news around Omicron.

In this case, the left and right have both responded in fairly distinct ways. Below, we'll take a look at some commentary from each, as well as a couple of arguments from epidemiologists, and then my take.


What the scientists are saying.

  • There are critical questions that we still need more data to answer.
  • We should err on the side of caution.
  • Vaccines are still the best defense for everyone.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said there are still questions we need to answer.

"While most of these variants turn out to be inconsequential, some, like the Delta variant, are immensely consequential," Jha wrote. "It is essential that world leaders respond quickly and aggressively even before all the data about this variant emerge... The first question is whether the variant is more transmissible than the current, prevalent Delta strain. Second, does it cause more severe disease? And third, will it render our immune defenses — from vaccines and prior infections — less effective (a phenomenon known as immune escape)?

"On transmissibility, the data, while early, look worrisome," Jha said. "It’s possible that this early data will be revised as epidemiologists look closer at factors other than transmissibility, such as whether an early Omicron superspreader event led to the variant appearing more highly contagious than it really is. While this is possible, the more likely scenario is that Omicron does spread more easily than Delta... It is extremely unlikely that Omicron will render the Covid-19 vaccines completely ineffective... although there is reason for concern. Omicron has a large number of mutations, including in the spike protein — the part of the protein that the virus uses to bind to and enter human cells. These areas of the protein are critical for vaccine-induced (and infection-induced) antibodies to protect against the virus. Even small hits to vaccine efficacy will leave us more vulnerable to infection and illness and can make it harder to contain the virus."

Dr. Meru Sheel, a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, said this could have been avoided.

“The vast majority of low- and middle-income countries have only vaccinated a small proportion of their population. An analysis suggests that while 66% of people in high-income countries are fully vaccinated, only 2.5% of the population in low-income countries are fully protected," she wrote. "With more than 3.5 billion people in the world waiting for their first dose of the vaccine, many high-income countries are now introducing boosters or third doses for the entire population, along with pediatric vaccines.

"Science tells us we could have avoided the emergence of this new variant of concern," Sheel said. "Viral mutations are a part of natural selection and are common. When the virus enters a cell, it can make copies of itself that go off and infect other cells and then pass to another person. Sometimes during this process of copying in non-immune persons, it may introduce an 'error' or mutation, and at times these mutations can offer competitive advantage to the viruses to spread from one non-immune person to another. But if a person is already immune (say from vaccination), then the virus cannot spread between people, preventing the emergence of new variants... [Omicron] is a timely reminder that we need larger populations of the world to be vaccinated against Covid-19."


What the left is saying.

  • The pandemic is still far from over.
  • President Biden needs to lead with transparency and action.
  • Everyone should get vaccinated and get their booster shot.

The Washington Post editorial board said this is a reminder that the pandemic isn't over.

“The delta variant, for reasons still unclear, surges at different places over time. A few months ago, it was rampaging in Florida and the South; now it is in the Upper Midwest. Delta’s behavior is hard to figure. It can set off a precipitous surge, then decline almost as suddenly, as happened in India. Or it can zoom up to a plateau, and stay there, as in Britain,” the board said. “The latest jolt came Friday over a new variant, Omicron, spreading fast in South Africa and designated a 'variant of concern' by the World Health Organization, which said it has a 'large number of mutations.' It will take time to determine if the variant is more transmissible than delta, or more virulent, but it is a worrisome development.

"In the United States, the pandemic is being fueled by the unvaccinated: 47 million adults and 12 million eligible teenagers," the board said. "New daily cases nationwide have been on the upswing for three weeks. Michigan, which had as few as 102 new daily cases at one point in the summer, now has a seven-day average of more than 7,000. At Spectrum Health, a system of 14 hospitals and other health-care facilities in western Michigan, 86 percent of the hospitalized covid patients and 90 percent of those in intensive care units are unvaccinated, many with underlying conditions as well. Increasingly, waning efficacy of the vaccines is giving the virus room to spread... The phenomenon should compel all adults to get a booster shot."

In CNN, Dean Obeidallah called it a "crucial test" for President Biden.

"While we await more details from scientists, this is the time for President Joe Biden and his administration to give a master class in effective and honest leadership in the face of a potential new crisis," Obeidallah wrote. "Biden has already stepped up on that front, announcing just hours after South Africa's health minister released information about the new variant, flights have been banned from seven African nations where the variant has been spreading (in contrast, in early 2020, Former President Donald Trump waited until after 45 other countries had banned flights from China — given the virus spread there — to impose a ban of flights from that nation into the United States).

"From here, Biden should hold regular press briefings to update Americans on new developments, and, as he did when he first took office, these coronavirus briefings should be led by medical experts who can provide scientifically-based information to a nation eager to know," he added. "But Biden should be there himself to show Americans he is in charge, and on top of this."


What the right is saying.

  • We have the tools to respond to Omicron.
  • We need to avoid any government lockdowns or reimposing restrictions.
  • There is a huge cost to being too cautious, and we need more data.

In The Wall Street Journal, the editorial board said we are well-prepared for variants with vaccines and new Covid-19 treatments, but should avoid any more government lockdowns.

"Travel restrictions didn’t stop the Delta, Alpha or the original Wuhan strain from spreading around the world," the board wrote. "Omicron has been found in Belgium, which means it’s probably already in Europe and the U.S. too. If Omicron is found in more countries—as invariably it will be—will governments shut down their borders and lock down again? That’s the fear animating markets. Many European countries are reimposing pandemic restrictions in response to rising cases. Austria has shut down again, and Germany is flirting with another national lockdown. Belgium on Friday announced it would close nightclubs and prohibit private parties except for weddings and funerals.

"One clear lesson from the pandemic is that lockdowns do more harm than good," the board said. "Booster shots will help the U.S. and Europe weather a winter surge and mitigate the impact of Omicron. That’s no doubt why Mr. Biden on Friday urged all Americans to get boosters, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was late to endorse them for all adults. The Administration worried about the political optics of boosting Americans while most people in low-income countries remain unvaccinated. That’s also why Mr. Biden on Friday reiterated his support for a petition at the World Trade Organization backed by South Africa and India to waive intellectual property protection for Covid vaccines."

In The Washington Post, Megan McArdle said "we need policies that let us live through" the pandemic "while still actually living."

"That strategy can’t be 'everyone go back home again and stay there.' The costs of further lockdowns would be heavy, from eating disorders and opioid overdoses to small-business failures and school kids falling behind," she wrote. "Besides, pandemic fatigue is setting in even in blue states. We must be more selective in our policies, opting for anti-covid measures that disrupt daily life as little as possible. And we should look for ones that sidestep contentious political battles, such as mask mandates.

"Fortunately (or rather, unfortunately), there are a lot of effective strategies the United States still hasn’t exploited effectively, such as better ventilation and updating building codes to require it. We can also re-implement policies we have used to good effect. Travel bans such as the one the Biden administration announced Friday can’t stop variants from penetrating our borders, but they can slow new strains down and give us time to ramp up other mitigations, such as variant-tailored booster shots," she said. "Antiviral treatments that seem to massively cut the risk of severe complications are now available... We need home testing kits so cheap and plentiful that everyone has piles of them everywhere... We also need to clean up our vaccination data, which is a mess. After we’ve fixed our own problems, we should spread the wealth around, helping poorer countries do more testing and tracking."


My take.

I'd bet good money the Omicron variant is already in the U.S., and I think we should all be working from that assumption. President Trump was panned for his travel bans, either for being too late to be effective or racially charged. I never viewed them as racist or xenophobic and never said as much (I actually think very few people called Trump xenophobic for his travel bans, it was more likely because of his comments about China, as one reader successfully convinced me many months ago).

And while I don't doubt that travel bans might buy us a little time, I take issue with the presumption that this variant started in South Africa rather than simply being initially detected there — the latter of which is almost certainly the case thanks to the country's sophisticated testing and genome sequencing infrastructure. It's also true that travel bans are a bad incentive. South Africa alerted the world to this variant in the same way we all wished the Chinese government had warned us of Covid-19, and their reward was to be immediately cut off and isolated — something I'm sure other nations are now taking note of.

The personal choice of how to behave during the pandemic has never been a particularly complicated subject for me. I bought into initial lockdowns, restrictions, and social distancing measures because I wanted to "flatten the curve." I wear a mask when I'm required or asked because there is evidence that doing so limits the spread of Covid-19. I got vaccinated and will get the booster shot because the vaccines appear safe and effective, particularly at preventing serious illness, even if their effectiveness wanes over time or they don't completely eliminate the spread of the virus. Balancing these measures with individual liberties is crucial, and that's why I've never been supportive of vaccine mandates (the employer option to test or get vaccinated seems totally reasonable to me) despite wanting more people to be vaccinated. I also advocated an end to "lockdowns" relatively early in the pandemic, given what we’ve learned about the cost-benefit of such measures.

I don't think this latest news changes much for me, except to increase my urgency and interest in a booster shot. Right or wrong, given the mood of the country, there is little to no chance a significant number of Americans would even abide by reimposed social distancing rules if the CDC or other epidemiologists called for them.

It should be said that some of the doom and gloom is totally warranted: The virus is a scourge, still killing nearly a thousand people a day in the U.S. alone, something we should never become numb to. About 1,660 people die from cancer a day in the U.S., and it should still shock and disturb us that a contagious virus that didn't exist two years ago is doing nearly equal damage despite vaccines to prevent it and two years of trying to stop it. Any new variables to worsen that already horrific toll on our country should worry all of us.

But we have good news, too: Vaccines can be adapted and have so far remained effective against every variant we've seen; the economic rebound is underway, however sporadic; kids are back in school; effective treatments are being stocked up; we have high vaccination rates among the most vulnerable; and we just celebrated a largely unrestricted Thanksgiving. We need a lot more information on Omicron to make our next move, but we must ensure we use the lessons of the last two years to inform whatever path we take forward.

Don't like my take? Feel free to reply to this email and let me know why. We love to publish thoughts and feedback from our readers.


Your questions, answered.

Q: What do you think about the media coverage on the Rittenhouse trial? I was looking at the court videos etc. and I found the media coverage of the trial to be highly distorted in comparison. There seems to be an enormous gap between what occurred in the trial and the facts presented in court, and the news stories about the trial. This does not bode well in terms of media trust, and what the public thinks occurred vs primary sources. Can anything be done to solve this?

— Anonymous, San Mateo, California

Tangle: In terms of television coverage, I agree that it was pretty awful. Many outlets, including CNN and MSNBC, were still spreading misinformation even after the trial solidified the evidence and basic facts that had been out there for months. There was some stellar print coverage, though, even from outlets with a bad reputation among the right: The Washington Post and The New York Times both put together tremendously helpful retellings of that night with dozens of interviews, hours of video footage and photographic evidence, as well as police interviews and court records.

I'm not sure much can be done in terms of changing the actual coverage. We've known for years the lessons around situations like what happened in Kenosha: Don't make assumptions, wait for more evidence, don't try to be first (try to be right), etc. But television news today thrives on breaking news, punditry and the thunderdome, split screen debates between highly polarized and agenda-driven commentators. It's why Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow are household names when actual news reporters and anchors are not.

I've always believed it starts with us. By turning those programs off and instead reading your news or seeking out more nuanced and balanced outlets, you can create an incentive for them to act differently. Short of that, I don't have a great answer.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Republican officials are testing a new strategy to win over the loyalty of vaccine hesitant Americans: Jobless aid. In Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee, Republican officials have changed unemployment insurance rules to allow workers who were fired or quit over a vaccine mandate to receive aid. The new rules come on top of laws passed by nine Republican-led states requiring exemptions from the Biden administration's mandate calling for vaccines or regular testing, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. This new move is the latest indication the GOP is hoping to ramp up support from unvaccinated Americans as they head into the 2022 midterm races. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 48.3 million. The estimated number of Americans who traveled at least 50 miles from their home for Thanksgiving this year.
  • 83,365. The average number of new daily Covid-19 cases in the U.S. today, according to a New York Times tracker.
  • 8,457. The average number of new daily Covid-19 cases in Michigan alone.
  • +3%. The rise in Covid-19 cases in the U.S. over the last 14 days.
  • +18%. The rise in Covid-19 testing in the U.S. over the last 14 days.
  • -10%. The drop in Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. over the last 14 days.

Don't forget...

We're giving this week! Tangle will be donating 50% of all new subscription revenue and "tips" this week to Heavenly HRVST, a charity that provides delicious shelf-stable meals to the hungry in New York City and across the east coast. That means if you subscribe or give us a tip, half of what you pay will go straight to Heavenly HRVST.

You can subscribe to Tangle by clicking here or drop something in our tip jar by clicking here.


Have a nice day.

Five years ago, a 7-year-old named Cash learned that the Tennessee River was polluted. He did some research with his parents and decided that he wanted to be the face of a conservation effort to clean the river, and began hosting river cleanups. In four years, he removed 14,000 pounds of trash and recycled more than one ton of aluminum. He uses the money he makes from recycling to place monofilament recycling bins on the river where fishermen can dispose of their lines rather than leaving them in the river. Now the 12-year-old has a non-profit called Conservation Kid, which he hopes will inspire other youngsters to participate in waterway cleanups. Kix Brooks Radio in Tennessee has the story.


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