We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.
I enthusiastically support the vaccination against COVID for children aged 5-11 years old. As an infectious disease doctor who took care of hundreds of COVID-19 patients over the past 20 months, I have seen the immediate and long-term consequences of COVID-19 on patients – and on their families. As a father of two daughters, I have lived through the fear and anxiety of protecting my kids at all cost from the scourges of the pandemic and worried constantly about bringing the virus home from work.
It is imperative that we vaccinate as many children in the community as possible. There are several reasons why. First children do get sick from COVID-19. Over the course of the pandemic in the U.S, more than 2 million children aged 5-11 have become infected, more than 8000 have been hospitalized, and more than 100 have died, making COVID one of the top 10 causes of pediatric deaths in this age group over the past year. Children are also susceptible to chronic consequences of COVID such as long COVID and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Most studies demonstrate that 10-30% of children will develop chronic symptoms following COVID-19. These include complaints of brain fog, fatigue, trouble breathing, fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, abdominal pain, mood swings and even psychiatric disorders. Symptoms typically last from 4-8 weeks in children, with some reporting symptoms that persist for many months.
Second, children are increasingly recognized as vectors who can bring infection into the house, potentially transmitting infection to vulnerable household members. Finally, we have all seen the mayhem that results when one child in the classroom becomes infected with COVID and the other students get sent home to quarantine – across the U.S., more than 2000 schools have been affected this way.
We now have an extraordinarily effective vaccine with more than 90 percent efficacy at preventing symptomatic infection. Vaccinating children will boost our countrywide vaccination rate which is trailing many countries after an early start. Nevertheless, there are still many questions and concerns that parents have as the vaccine gets rolled out. I will address six of them here.
"Novel Vaccine Technology"
Even though this is a relatively new vaccine, the technology is not new. Scientists had worked on mRNA vaccines for decades prior to the COVID mRNA vaccine breakthrough. Furthermore, experience with the Pfizer COVID vaccine is rapidly growing. By now it has been more than a year and a half since the Pfizer trials began in March 2020, and more than 7 billion doses have already been administered globally, including in 13.7 million adolescents in the U.S. alone.
"Will This Vaccine Alter My Child's DNA?"
No. This is not how mRNA works. DNA is present in the cell's nucleus. The mRNA only stays in the outside cytoplasm, gets destroyed and never enters the inner sanctum of the nucleus. Furthermore, for the mRNA to be ever integrated into DNA, it requires a special enzyme called reverse transcriptase which humans don't have. Proteins (that look like the spike proteins on SARS-CoV-2) are made directly from this mRNA message without involvement of our DNA at any time. Pieces of spike proteins get displayed on the outside of our cells and our body makes protective antibodies that then protects us handily against the future real virus if it were ever to enter our (or our children's) bodies. Our children's DNA or genes can never be affected by an mRNA vaccine.
"Lack of Info on Long-Term Side Effects"
Unlike medications that are taken daily or periodically and can build up over time, the mRNA in the Pfizer vaccine is evanescent. It literally is just the messenger (that is what the "m" in mRNA stands for) and the messenger quickly disappears. mRNA is extremely fragile and easily inactivated – that's why we need to encase it in a special fatty bubble and store the vaccines at extremely cold temperatures. Our cells break down and destroy the mRNA within a few days after receiving the instructions to make the virus spike proteins. The presence of these fragments of the virus (note this is not "live" virus) prompts our immune system to generate protective antibodies to the real thing. Our bodies break down mRNA all the time in normal cellular processes – this is nothing new.
What the transience of the delivery system means is that most of the effects of the mRNA vaccines are expected to be more immediate (sore arm, redness at the site, fever, chills etc.), with no long-term side effects anticipated. A severe allergic response has been reported to occur in some generally within the first 15 minutes, is very rare, and everyone gets observed for that as part of standard vaccine administration. Even with the very uncommon complication of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart) seen primarily in young men under the age of 30 following mRNA vaccines, these typically happen within days to 2 weeks and many return to work or school in days. In the 70-year history of pediatric (and adult vaccines), dangerous complications happen in the first two months. There have been millions of adolescents as young as 12 years and thousands in the initial trial of children aged 5-11 who have already received the vaccine and are well beyond the two-month period of observation. There is no biological reason to believe that younger children will have a different long-term side effect profile compared to adolescents or adults.
"Small Sample Size in Kids and the Trial Design"
Although the Pfizer trial in children aged 5-11 was relatively small, it was big enough to give us statistical confidence in assessing safety and efficacy outcomes. Scientists spend a lot of time determining the right sample size of a study during the design phase. On one hand, you want to conduct the study efficiently so that resources are used in a cost-effective way and that you get a timely answer, especially in a fast-moving pandemic. On the other hand, you want to make sure you have enough sample size so that you can answer the question confidently as to whether the intervention works and whether there are adverse effects. The more profound the effect size of the intervention (in this case the vaccine), the fewer the numbers of children needed in the trials.
Statistics help investigators determine whether the results seen would have appeared by chance or not. In this case, the effect was real and impressive. Over 3,000 children around the world have received the vaccines through the trials alone with no serious side effects detected. The first press release reported that the immune response in children aged 5-11 was similar (at one-third the vaccine dose) to the response in the comparator group aged 16-25 years old. Extrapolating clinical efficacy results from immune response measurements ("immunobridging" study) would already have been acceptable if this was the only data. This is a standard trial design for many pediatric vaccines. Vaccines are first tested in the lab, followed by animals then adults. Only when deemed safe in adults and various regulatory bodies have signed off, do the pediatric vaccine trials commence.
Because children's immune systems and bodies are in a constant state of development, the vaccines must be right-sized. Investigators typically conduct "age de-escalation" studies in various age groups. The lowest dose is first tried so see if that is effective, then the dose is increased gradually as needed. Immune response is the easiest, safest and most efficient way to test the efficacy of pediatric vaccines. This is a typical size and design of a childhood vaccine seeking regulatory approval. There is no reason to think that the clinical efficacy would be any different in children vs. adults for a given antibody response, given the experience already in the remainder of the population, including older children and adolescents. Although this was primarily designed as an "immunobridging" study, the initial immunologic response data was followed by real clinical outcomes in this population. Reporting on the outcomes of 2,268 children in the randomized controlled trial, the vaccine was 90.7% effective at preventing symptomatic infection.
"Fear of Myocarditis"
Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart) have been associated with receipt of the mRNA vaccines, particularly among male adolescents and young adults, typically within a few days after receiving the second dose. But this is very rare. For every million vaccine recipients, you would expect 41 cases in males, and 4 cases in females aged 12-29 years-old. The risk in older age groups is substantially lower. It is important to recognize that the risk of myocarditis associated with COVID is substantially higher. Patients present with new chest pain, shortness of breath, or palpitations after receiving an mRNA vaccine (more common after the second dose). But outcomes are good if associated with the vaccine. Most respond well to treatment and resolve symptoms within a week. There have been no deaths associated with vaccine-associated myocarditis.
In contrast, COVID-associated myocarditis has been associated with more severe cases as well as other complications including chronic symptoms of long COVID. The risk of myocarditis is likely related to vaccine dose, so the fact that one-third the dose of the vaccine will be used in the 5-11 year-olds is expected to correspond to a lower risk of myocarditis. At the lower dose given to younger kids, there has been a lower incidence of adverse effects reported compared to older children and adults who received the full dose. In addition, baseline rates of myocarditis not associated with vaccination are much lower in children ages 5-11 years than in older children, so the same may hold true for vaccine-associated myocarditis cases. This is because myocarditis is associated with sex hormones (particularly testosterone) that surge during puberty. In support of this, the incidence of vaccine-associated myocarditis is lower in 12–15-year-old boys, compared to those who were older than 16 years old. There were no cases of myocarditis reported in the experience to date of 5–11-year-old children in the trials, although the trial was too small to pick up on such a rare effect.
"Optimal Dose Spacing Interval: Longer Than 3 Weeks?"
There is a biologic basis for increasing the interval between vaccine doses in general. Priming the immune system with the first shot and then waiting gives the second shot a better chance of prompting a secondary immune reaction that results in a more durable response (with more T cell driven immune memory). One study from the U.K. showed that the antibody response in people over 80 was more than 3 times higher if they delayed the second dose to after 12 weeks for the Pfizer vaccine instead of the 3 weeks studied in trials. In a study of 503 British health care workers, there were twice as many neutralizing antibodies produced in a longer interval group (6-14 weeks) versus a shorter interval group (3-4 weeks) between doses. However, the safety and efficacy with longer intervals has not been evaluated in the pediatric or other COVID vaccine trials.
In the U.S., the C.D.C. reported that 88 percent of counties are at a "high" or "substantial" level of community transmission. Also, Europe is already experiencing a winter surge of infections that may predict more U.S. winter cases as international travel reopens. During a time of high community virus burden with a highly transmissible Delta variant, relying on one dose of vaccine for several more weeks until the second may leave many more susceptible to infection while waiting. One study from England showed that one dose of the Pfizer vaccine was only 33% protective against symptomatic Delta infection in contrast to 50% for the Alpha variant in adults. There has been no corollary information in children but we would expect less protection in general from one vaccine dose vs. two. This is a particularly important issue with the upcoming holiday season when an increased number of families will travel. Some countries such as the U.K. and Norway have proceeded with only offering older than 12 year-olds one dose of vaccine rather than two, but this was before the current European surge which may change the risk-benefit calculus. There are no plans to only offer one vaccine dose in the U.S. at this time. However a lower dose of the vaccine will likely be studied in the future for adolescents aged 12-15.
For parents worried about the potential risk of adverse effects of two doses of vaccines in their children, it is reasonable to wait 6-12 weeks for the second shot but it all depends on your risk-benefit calculus. There is biological plausibility to pursue this strategy. Although there is no pediatric-specific data to draw from, a longer interval may lengthen immune memory and potentially decrease the risk of myocarditis, particularly in boys. There may only be partial benefit in eliciting protective antibodies after one vaccine dose but only 2-4% of children are hospitalized with COVID once infected, with risk of severe illness increasing if they have comorbidities.
There are also some data indicating that 40% of children have already been exposed to infection naturally and may not need further protection after one shot. However, this percentage is likely a large overestimation given the way the data was collected. Using antibody tests to ascertain previous infection in children may be problematic for several reasons: uncertainty regarding duration of protection, variability in symptoms in children with most having very mild symptoms, and the lack of standardization of antibody tests in general. Overall, if the child has medical comorbidities such as diabetes, parents are planning to travel with their children, if local epidemiology shows increasing cases, and if there are elderly or immunocompromised individuals in the household, I would vaccinate children with two doses as per the original recommended schedule.
Bottom line: Given the time of the year and circulating Delta, I would probably stick with the recommended 3-week interval between doses for now for most children. But if parents choose a longer interval between the first and second dose for their children, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Better to be vaccinated - even if slowly, over time -- than not at all.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.