BA.2: Your 2022 Variant De Jour
Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here. (I am also part of the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium. The views expressed here are my own and should not be taken as representing organisations I work for.)
I know what you are thinking. Another newsletter. What the f**k is it now?
In fairness, I have developed quite the “downer-brand” but you can always choose not to read, unsubscribe and certainly not read on because today what I’m writing about is very much on brand.
It is about Omicron and not the Omicron Christmas Special or BA.1 we have enjoyed recently but a variant of Omicron called BA.2. They are calling it “stealth Omicron” because it seems to have crept up on us while we were distracted with the other Omicron. It is not so much stealthy as something we weren’t looking for because we just don’t look in most places.
Except that is, Denmark which sequences everything they can get their hands on. And this is what they have found:
While we were out, BA.2 appears to have outcompeted BA.1. For Denmark, this means their Omicron Christmas Special wave has morphed into the Omicron Christmas Hangover without skipping a beat.
The BA.2 strain was actually discovered in South Africa back in November but it was harder to detect because it didn’t leave the same marker on PCR tests. It leaves a different market so you have to be paying attention. But interestingly, it has only got traction recently. One piece of good news is that it doesn’t seem to be any more lethal than Omicron and also vaccines work to prevent serious illness.
And now for the bad news
Where BA.2 has been measured, it appears to be 1.5 times as transmissible than BA.1. That’s a lot. Omicron was already Omicron, the most transmissible virus since the Measles that ripped across the world in mere months and was responsible for the “all my friends have Covid” feeling. 50% more transmissible than that which means in terms of growth it can replace BA.1 within weeks. This is precisely what has happened in Denmark and now is happening across the rest of Europe. It could be elsewhere but they aren’t really looking.
It is really hard to fathom that there will be any escaping this one. Epidemiologists are worried that the seeming peaking over the Omicron wave may be very short-lived.
And now for the really bad news
You might be say, “OK, fine but I was going to get Omicron pretty soon anyway so this is much the same outcome for me” or “Well I have had Omicron so who cares about this?”
Ah yes, fatalism; the comfort food of Covid Year Three. Tim Harford wrote an excellent article the other week on this subject.
Is this the point at which we should shrug our shoulders and give up? Omicron has prompted three kinds of reaction: optimism, pessimism and fatalism. The optimists argue that the variant is “nature’s vaccine”, a mild and transmissible virus that will quickly infect billions, triggering an immune response that will provide protection against deadlier variants such as Delta. The pandemic is over, and we won.
The pessimists believe that, while Omicron is probably less dangerous than Delta, attacking lung cells less aggressively, it may still be dangerous enough. It partially dodges vaccines, and many people have yet to have access to a vaccine anyway. If it does quickly infect billions, then hospitals across the world will be overwhelmed. The pandemic is over, and the virus won.
The fatalists argue that if everyone agrees that billions are about to be infected, then eat, drink and be merry. If it didn’t get you at Christmas, it will surely get you by Easter. What’s confusing is that all three views may be right. Omicron is quite plausibly mild, catastrophic and inevitable all at once.
That’s how he started but then made the error of talking to me for the “it may well be worse” take:
But there is a subtler flaw in the case for fatalism, says Joshua Gans of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School. Implicit in the fatalists’ argument is that you’ll either get Covid-19 once now, or once later. “If we were having this conversation about flu,” says Gans, “you wouldn’t be talking about whether to catch flu now or later. You could easily catch flu now and later. The same is possible with Covid.”
Flu mutates endlessly, which is why many people receive a flu vaccine every year. But Omicron has demonstrated that Sars-Cov-2 can also mutate more dramatically than we had hoped. There are no prizes for picking up an Omicron infection now if Pi, a new immunity-evading variant, will be with us this summer.
That was me speculating. Now we have evidence that reinfection with Omicron is not only possible but can happen quite quickly. Omicron is 5 times more likely to have reinfection than Delta. What’s more, there appears to be waning immunity in just 10 weeks. All this is just preliminary but it weighs against fatalism and towards something far more worrying.
There is a chance, hopefully still a low one, that you may get Omicron again and again over the next year while it continues to circulate in such high quantities. That might mean nothing in terms of symptoms but it is hard to know. It could also mean continual bouts of illness. You may not end up hospitalised but you don’t want the flu every three months either.
One thing that has been lacking in this whole pandemic are ways of alleviating Covid symptoms while you have them. If you look at online guides they basically tell you to pop an Advil and wait. I think there must be a potential market to develop something better here.
People have started to ask me whether social distancing, mask-wearing or even vaccine passports are helping given all of this. Frankly, I don’t know, My epidemiologist friends are convinced they are. Ontario will be reducing restrictions next week so I guess that might give us some indication of what is going on.