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Noah Smith Interviews Eric Topol on the Omicron Variant

Summary:
Eric Topol, a cardiologist by training, is the founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. Throughout the pandemic, Eric has been the source of a wealth of up-to-date, expertly curated information on Twitter — indeed, I’ve found him to be the single best Twitter account to follow for Covid info. With the new Omicron Covid variant causing alarm around the world, I thought it would be good to sit down with Eric and ask him all my questions — about Omicron, vaccination, and how the pandemic eventually ends. Among the key things I learned:Delta, though much more transmissible, wasn’t an “escape variant”. The original, unmodified mRNA vaccines worked perfectly well against Delta.The same is probably not true of Omicron. Sequencing and some lab studies suggest that Omicron has

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Eric Topol, a cardiologist by training, is the founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. Throughout the pandemic, Eric has been the source of a wealth of up-to-date, expertly curated information on Twitter — indeed, I’ve found him to be the single best Twitter account to follow for Covid info.

With the new Omicron Covid variant causing alarm around the world, I thought it would be good to sit down with Eric and ask him all my questions — about Omicron, vaccination, and how the pandemic eventually ends.

Among the key things I learned:

  • Delta, though much more transmissible, wasn’t an “escape variant”. The original, unmodified mRNA vaccines worked perfectly well against Delta.

  • The same is probably not true of Omicron. Sequencing and some lab studies suggest that Omicron has evolved ways to escape both acquired immunity and vaccine immunity.

  • That suggests that vaccine companies will need to make new booster shots against Omicron. In fact, this is easy to do, and they’re already doing this. The key is getting rapid FDA approval and getting the CDC to recommend the boosters.

  • The CDC was slow to recommend boosters against Delta in part because of concern over vaccine availability for developing countries, but mostly because the CDC is very parochial and didn’t trust the data on boosters and Delta that was emerging from other countries like Israel.

  • Far more effective than variant-specific boosters would be a universal “supervaccine” that works against all possible variants of Covid. Several labs, including Topol’s, have candidates for such a supervaccine.

  • Either the U.S. federal government or a group of countries needs to immediately coordinate and fund an effort to create a Covid supervaccine. This would represent our best bet at ending the pandemic once and for all.

  • In the meantime, Pfizer’s antiviral drug should be effective against most or all Covid variants, and represents a vital addition to our toolkit against new variants like Omicron.

In other words, science is advancing rapidly, and we really can end this pandemic once and for all. But we cannot — we must not — rest on the laurels of our initial vaccine achievement. We still have lots of work to do, and our public health agencies are still not doing as good a job as they ought to be doing.

The Biden administration needs to immediately kick this effort into high gear.

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Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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