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1 December 2021

How the virus struck back

In this dark pandemic era, Omicron is only the beginning

By Bruno Maçães

It may be weeks before we know how ­dangerous the new coronavirus variant Omicron is to human life. The 50 mutations on the variant include more than 30 on the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds with our cells. These mutations could make it more transmissible and more likely to evade the immune protection conferred by vaccines. Nevertheless, governments have reacted aggressively this time round, imposing restrictions such as border closures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Even if Omicron turns out to be a false alarm and not as deadly as some worry it might be, the episode should give us pause. It is a good thing that our reaction time has been reduced, but that also means we are sinking deeper into a new reality created by the pandemic. A return to normal, to the old world before Covid-19, looks increasingly elusive. There will be new scares and new aggressive responses, each prompting us to be increasingly alert in the future.

As I followed the initial news emerging from South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected on 24 November, it seemed that the most common reaction was one of foreboding. “This will never be over,” a taxi driver in Jerusalem told me. More than afraid, he sounded exasperated. The new variant has caused fresh emotional strain. He knew how the authorities in Tel Aviv would react: an immediate ban on the arrival of foreign nationals, which was implemented on 28 November, making it harder for workers like him to earn a living.

Patience is running dangerously low in many parts of the world and democracies find themselves in a vulnerable position. Their citizens are naturally demanding. In societies where governments are held responsible for everything that goes wrong, this moment has to be recognised as a perilous one. Were Omicron or some other future variant to escape vaccine immunity, how many people in western Europe or North America would be willing to accept a new wave of harsh and prolonged lockdowns? There was a widespread belief in 2020 that those measures were temporary. If they are not, anger will simmer. We feel entitled to normal life.

The case of the United States is a red flag. Throughout the past two years, American society has given ample proof that it has no political resources to fight the pandemic using policy and health measures. If, under Joe Biden, it has managed to reacquire some measure of control over events, this was singly owing to the appearance of revolutionary new vaccines, which US companies played a decisive role in developing. Adam Tooze, the economic historian and New Statesman ­writer, recently told me that the US government looked like a desperate army placing all its hopes in the discovery of a miracle weapon. The weapon did arrive, in the form of mRNA vaccines, but a diversified arsenal would have been more prudent. And what if this miracle weapon loses some of its firepower over time, as the virus mutates?

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The more the virus is in circulation, the greater the chance that mutants appear. In a survey of 77 scientists carried out in March, two thirds of respondents thought we had a year or less before the virus mutated to the extent that the majority of first-generation vaccines were rendered ineffective and new vaccines were required. One third thought the scenario would materialise by the end of 2021.

Omicron emerged more or less on ­schedule. We should not be surprised if it possesses some level of immune evasion. As for global vaccine coverage, it continues to be low in many countries, with only 27 per cent of health workers in Africa having been fully vaccinated against Covid.

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The threat of immune escape sets up a race between vaccination and virus mutation. There is an urgent need for governments throughout the world to expect and prepare for the worst.

Biomedical research and innovation should be accelerated to reduce the ­likelihood of future, even greater threats that may arise from a quickly evolving situation, while systematic genomic testing for new variants has become an imperative.

Thanks to South African scientists and the transparency of their government, we were warned early about Omicron, but other governments and health authorities in the future might not feel encouraged to be so open if all they can expect is a series of ­travel bans and very little in the way of funding or technical support. We may even find out that Omicron was circulating elsewhere and South Africa was simply the first to identify it.

The virus could perhaps be seen as a fluke — the wrong kind of bat meets the wrong kind of pig, as in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion. But as the pandemic progresses, there seems to be a greater awareness that the state of exception – a time of biomedical surveillance, rapid border closures, quarantines and regular mass vaccinations – will last. It was surprising to hear the recent news that a top vaccine manufacturing ­centre in the UK is up for sale because of concerns about excess capacity in vaccine production. Even though private manufacturing did increase the amount of available ­vaccine, the truth is that all over the world doses remain far from abundant.

It is time to lose the innocence of youth: pretending that we can quickly return to normal is the best way to prolong the current travails. As the World Health Organisation put it on 29 November: “Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with Covid-19, it is not done with us.” The new war against a mutating virus — and then, perhaps, subsequent pathogens — will last longer than was hoped. And if that is true, our approach to technology needs to change.

Sometimes technology works as an insurance policy and we have to measure its value against the state of the world during an emergency. The economic and social gains from the Covid vaccines should not be measured against the state of the world before the pandemic, but against the state of a future world in which no vaccines had been discovered or where they had turned out to be much less efficient. Can you imagine the counterfactual? Longer and harsher lockdowns, a drawn-out collapse of global supply chains, growing social division and political conflict, culminating in acute political crises affecting Western democracies. Against this background, the current generation of vaccines was worth trillions of dollars, but their value must be protected with fast upgrades targeted at emergent virus mutations.

The same logic would apply to the climate transition. Even if green energy sources have the exact same energy density and cost as fossil fuels, their actual cost must be measured against the counterfactual of a world with even more severe climate change disasters. The pandemic may eventually teach us to think more rigorously about counterfactuals. We become more aware of how open the future is when the present is full of unpredictable developments.

From the point of view of progressive thought, what looks like a constricted path is in fact empty space where infinite lines may be drawn and movement has no preordered direction or even necessity. The pandemic has taken us to the abyss. What have we learned? How do we change our ways?

Omicron shows one way in which we might lose control over events. Manufacturers such as Moderna and Pfizer have already assured a worried public that vaccines can be tweaked to respond to new variants in case there is a significant risk of immune evasion. The process would still take three or four months and then a new global vaccination campaign would have to start. And what happens if a new variant comes along within a year? Do we restart everything once again? There must be a better way.

Antiviral pills such as those recently announced by Merck and Pfizer offer new hope, but they are far from a miracle cure. Antiviral drugs need to be given early in the course of an infection and there is a reasonable chance that the coronavirus might in time become resistant to them. Another, less likely scenario is that molnupiravir – a Covid pill that generates mutations in the coronavirus genome in order to kill the virus – leads to the emergence of new variants.

Some scientists have called for the development of general vaccines targeting future viruses or entire virus families, as well as the creation of prototype vaccines for all the most likely animal pathogens. Health organisations might then stockpile these types of vaccines for the next potential pandemic. It would be possible and maybe even desirable to conduct phase one and two human trials before an outbreak.

What if a single vaccine could protect us not only from one specific virus but from the whole family of coronaviruses?

That includes many colds, respiratory syndromes, Covid and thousands of other pathogens, as well as killer viruses we may not even know exist. According to Wayne Koff, the CEO of the Human Vaccines Project, ­supercomputing and machine learning could eventually deliver a truly universal coronavirus vaccine. “If animal ecologists can gather enough data from the field,” he has explained, “you create an algorithm to find the ones that have the greatest potential to jump species, and then the ones that would kill people.”

One difficulty we must face is that price and market mechanisms struggle with ­coordinating transformations this radical. Agents in the market typically rely on price signals to inform their plans, but there are no signals for fundamental technological change, where some level of central coordination is needed to bring about a new market equilibrium. From the perspective of a vaccine ­manufacturer, it might make more sense to produce new vaccines for every new variant, but the common good would be better promoted by a serious, coordinated effort to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine. As others have pointed out, similar considerations apply to the climate emergency.

As I argue in my recent book Geopolitics for the End Time, many psychological obstacles to technological developments are crumbling at the same time. They can be grouped into two areas, both related to our state of exception. First, we have realised that time is scarce. Moving fast is the responsible choice, now that we understand deadly threats can arrive suddenly and catch us unprepared. Second, societies have a collective responsibility to address common problems, and consent cannot become a veto power held by each individual that affects our ability to act collectively.

We have even started to notice how a kind of decayed libertarianism stops us from embracing new technological developments. It goes like this: governments cannot do anything about a raging virus and should just refrain from interfering with natural processes. The concept, bizarre as it may sound, has been growing in popularity. Florida wrote a natural immunity exception into state law on 17 November that would allow the state to sidestep vaccine mandates. Republican lawmakers elsewhere are pushing for similar measures. Joe Rogan, the host of the popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, told his listeners that young people in good health should skip the vaccine. Thus libertarianism – the government ­cannot plan everything – has reverted or involuted into a premodern fatalism: we must resign ourselves to fate.

To the extent that market mechanisms function as a veto ­power, they too may need to be rethought in this age of ­pandemic alert.

Bruno Maçães was the Portuguese Europe minister from 2013-15. He is the author of “Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis” (Hurst)

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This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back