Should I try to catch the Omicron variant of Covid to advance the cause of herd immunity?
I’ve had Covid and recovered, had the Regeneron monoclonal antibody infusion, and had the double-jab vaccine—my antibodies are off the charts. With triple protection, I probably won’t catch Omicron. Yet it is spreading like wildfire. Many people with ample antibodies are catching this variant. Importantly, it seldom leads to hospitalization or death.
The prudent response to Omicron might be to encourage vaccinated people and even unvaccinated young adults to catch it, while protecting the at-risk population. One measure of a pathogen’s lethality is the case fatality rate—the ratio of the death toll to the known cases. The 28-day average case fatality rate in South Africa, the likely origin of the Omicron variant, tumbled in the past six weeks from 8% to 0.2%, barely higher than for the flu. Omicron will assuredly confer new, complementary antibodies on its victims, providing an additional measure of immunity to more lethal Covid variants.
Omicron takes lives. So does the flu. If antibodies to the Omicron variant are even 50% effective in reducing the risk of death from more-lethal variants, those antibodies could save far more lives than the virus costs. From a personal perspective, which is more likely, dying if I catch the Omicron variant, or dying from another, more lethal variant of Covid because I lack the Omicron antibodies? The answer isn’t as simple as our policy elite might suggest.
No politician will do this sort of cost-benefit analysis. Europe and Latin America are in various stages of renewed lockdowns. As usual, they began long after cases were already soaring. Sometimes, as in the Netherlands last week, the lockdowns were initiated after daily case and death counts were already receding. For the European Union, the U.S. and Latin America, the latest case fatality rate is 0.5%, 0.4% and 0.3%, respectively, down from a high of 4% to 7% during the Delta wave in June. If we add in the legions of asymptomatic, mild and untested cases, the true Omicron mortality is likely around 0.2%, roughly in line with seasonal flu.
Bureaucrats in Europe, Latin America and some U.S. states seem to be saying: Let’s wait for cases to soar, then wait a little longer until the crisis is subsiding, then let’s blow up the economy after it’s too late to save any lives.
Lockdowns also cost lives. This is the underreported collateral damage from Covid. In an October study for the Reason Foundation, my colleagues and I found that in the U.S., excess deaths (fatalities above historical norms) from homicide, suicide, overdose or accident had amounted to some 82,000 between March 2020 and August 2021. During that period, the murder rate roughly doubled, and overdose deaths rose more than 50%. Accidental deaths are also elevated; after all, more fatal accidents happen at home than in the office. Meanwhile, supply-chain disruptions, fear of hospitals, and delayed diagnoses collectively led to an additional 86,000 excess deaths from cancer, heart and lung disease and stroke. In 15 weeks, through Dec. 18, these excess deaths—none from Covid—have risen by another 56,000.
Every death is a tragedy. Yet we all die eventually, so it is sensible to examine death from a cost-benefit perspective. We keep hearing the mantra “follow the science.” True scientific method involves airing opinions and vetting hypotheses, not stifling debate. Beyond the hard sciences, it also involves asking tough cost-benefit questions while anticipating unintended consequences.
Let’s explore unconventional answers to end this protracted nightmare. I am not trying to catch Omicron. But I am not afraid: catching it may very well reduce, not increase, my risk of dying from some future Covid variant.
Mr. Arnott is founding chairman of Research Affiliates, an asset management firm based in Newport Beach, Calif.
Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Opinion | Omicron Variant May End Up Saving Lives