Americans should be thankful, not fearful. The U.S. is unlikely to see the magnitude of COVID-19 surge now occurring in Europe or be as severely impacted by the Omicron variant.
The U.S. has high COVID-19 vaccination rates. Eighty-two percent of those 18 and older and 100% of the uniquely vulnerable population over age 65 have had at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of equal importance, over 96% of vaccine doses administered have been the strong 95%-effective Pfizer and Moderna shots.
The U.S. has been fast to deploy boosters, especially to those over 65, over 40% of whom have been boosted. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, while fast-acting, lose effectiveness over time. The elderly were vaccinated first, so they are most in need of boosters.
In Europe, vaccination rates are high, but many people have been vaccinated with less effective vaccines, primarily the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine which is somewhere between 63% and 79% effective.
COVID-19 surged first in the United Kingdom, where 50 million doses of the AZ vaccine have been administered to a population of 67 million. Accordingly, 25 to 50 million people (AZ is a two-shot vaccine) have had only about 70% protection. Thus, the UK population entered its surge with a much lower level of actual protection than implied by the overall vaccination rate reported by most media outlets.
Other European nations are experiencing major surges of the virus as well. Austria imposed a nationwide lockdown nine days ago. The latest data from European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) show Austria with a one-shot vaccination rate of about 81% for ages 18 and over. Unfortunately, 15% of those doses are the less-effective AZ shot and the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is about 65% effective.
Germany is experiencing a surge. According to the ECDC, Germany has a vaccination rate of 83% for those 18 and older, with, however, about one-quarter of the doses being the weaker AZ and J&J vaccines.
An equivalent surge in the U.S. is improbable with our high vaccination and booster rates and almost exclusive use of the 95%-effective vaccines.
When the various vaccines first came out, all the different types were received with much relief and joy.
That was then. Thankfully, the Food and Drug Administration never authorized the AZ vaccine, and the J&J shot suffered an early scare concerning side effects and never gained much traction.
Europeans have been switching to the more effective vaccines. The UK has decided not to use its home-grown AZ vaccine but rather the Pfizer vaccine for booster shots.
Focusing upon high efficacy is important. Nothing undermines public trust like ineffective protection.
This logic should be extended to COVID-19 treatments. The UK is administering a 50%-effective Merck virus treatment pill. Earlier this month, Pfizer cut short clinical trials of its anti-viral COVID-19 treatment pill after it registered an amazing 89% effectiveness rate. The FDA should approve the Pfizer pill as soon as possible.
The Merck pill not so much. It would not be surprising to see the UK switch from the Merck to the Pfizer pill.
Over the course of almost twenty-one months of the waxing and waning pandemic, the public has been subjected to a confusing array of public advisories about the virus itself, about vaccines, protection routines and possible treatments, including on-again-off-again face mask mandates, intermittent lockdowns and now a controversial federal vaccine mandate.
In all likelihood, much vaccine hesitancy and anti-vax sentiment has been generated by this confusion.
The message should be clarified. The high effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be emphasized. In addition, one clear and simple message should be disseminated, namely that no one who gets vaccinated, who gets a booster shot and soon has available an 89%-effective virus treatment pill should fear contraction of the virus from unvaccinated people. The three levels of protection should prevent serious illness and death.
That is not to say that some vaccinated and boosted people will not contract the virus, or that, despite treatment with the new highly-effective COVID treatment pill, some of them will not get seriously ill and die. Logically, their numbers will be extremely small. The media should stop scaremongering around rare cases, turning them into frightening sensations.
Government policy should embrace an all-of-the above approach, encouraging vaccination and boosters, while also accommodating vaccine hesitancy and outright opposition. Instead of demonizing and penalizing resisters, the government should facilitate the approval, production and distribution of Pfizer’s new treatment pill, so the vaccine resisters can obtain protection, if they do contract the virus.
Vax-resisters are likely to flock to the pill if they do become infected. Nothing concentrates the mind like the fear of death. Let’s rely upon human nature and persuasion rather than coercion.
While it may be politically incorrect to say, unvaccinated survivors of infection wind up with natural immunity and contribute to a higher level of herd immunity, reducing spread.
Americans should rejoice that we have three-part protection. Let citizens in a free country choose the part or parts that work for them. We should be thankful for the American free enterprise system which has yielded such wondrous pharmaceutical breakthroughs and for a free democratic society which affords people the freedom to choose the best medical options for themselves.
Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.