Oz for Dummies: Week 52, 2021

(December 26–January 2 ) Omicron, Omi-gone soon? / Pandemic normality in the land of Oz (and Europe)

Omicron has taken the world by storm, pretty much everywhere. Notable exceptions are China, a couple of other Asian countries, and Western Australia. For now. It is not clear what the end-game is of their covid-zero strategy.

/ Omicron, Omi-gone soon?

Within a couple of weeks Omicron has confirmed what has been known for a few weeks: that it is a rather infectious beast and able to out-compete other SARS-CoV-2 strains with ease. Alas, what is also becoming clear is that, while it is a rather infectious beast, it is more harmless than, say, the Delta variant that it has crowded out.

There has been some controversy around this claim — the usual alarmists appealing once more to their version of the precautionary principle. But when even sensible people like Drosten in Germany buy into the narrative that, because of the relative mildness of the Omicron variant, we are moving to the endemic stage of covid-19, maybe it is time to just ignore the loud and vocal but extremely risk-averse OzCage and OzRage crowd that writes typically in a very self-interested manner from financially secure positions and can work from home (having their food-stuff and other necessities delivered by people who have no choice but not to wfh). Says Drosten (head of the institute of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital and prominent advisor to the old and new German government):

Of course, it is a good situation if you have a virus that no longer makes you ill but transmits easily so that it can seek out and find all of the immunity gaps among the population and still trigger regular updates in immunity.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the results of an intriguing study by a group of researchers from the University of HongKong (UHK) that suggests that 24 hours after infection Omicron replicated ~70x faster than Delta in bronchi and ~10x less efficiently in the lung tissue. The authors of this article in the Sydney Morning Herald (reprinted from the New York Times) summarize competently the UHK study and some other more recent studies using mice and hamsters all of which find evidence that support the claim Omicron is milder than Delta and other earlier versions of the virus:

On Wednesday, a large consortium of Japanese and American scientists released a report on hamsters and mice that had been infected with either Omicron or one of several earlier variants. Those infected with Omicron had less lung damage, lost less weight and were less likely to die, the study found.

Although the animals infected with Omicron on average experienced much milder symptoms, the scientists were particularly struck by the results in Syrian hamsters, a species known to get severely ill with all previous versions of the virus. …

Several other studies on mice and hamsters have reached the same conclusion.

The link to this massive study, which demonstrates attenuated lung disease in rodents that parallels available human clinical data, and which was conducted by multiple independent laboratories using different Omicron samples, is here. Gotta love clean experiments.

There is of course also the “natural experiment” that is now seems to come to an end in South Africa where Omicron was first identified in late November 2021. “The speed with which the Omicron-driven fourth wave rose, peaked and then declined has been staggering. Peak in four weeks and precipitous decline in another two,” Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council posted on Twitter. And the added good news is that hospitalizations, nevermind ICU referrals or deaths, have been much lower than in previous waves. Two obvious confounds (working in opposite directions): age distribution is skewed massively towards the young but vaccination rates are much lower than in Australia or much of Europe.

This December 31 report from the UK Health Security Agency details the important added protection that vaccination provides. My current estimate is (based on several sets of data) that full vaccination reduces the risk of hospitalization by at least 90 percent and that of ICU referral and death by even more. Get vaxxed, kids! If you are not, you are living in very dangerous territory, especially if you are of advanced age. Robin Fransman, Dutch economist and prominent anti-vaxxer, could confirm it. If he were still alive. Alas, dead at 53 he is now a major contender for the 2021 Darwin Award.

/ Pandemic normality in the land of Oz

The surge in cases in New South Wales (the last couple of days robustly around a reported 20,000 daily new cases but most likely significantly higher), Victoria (headed towards 10,000), Queensland and South Australia (both seemingly headed towards 5,000), have been extra-ordinary. The positivity rate for NSW is approaching 10 % and for Victoria, Qld, and South Australia, it’s currently around 5%. And these numbers are probably only so reliable given that testing sites (and processors) are overwhelmed.

Hospitalizations and ICU referrals are all up, as you would expect given these surges but it is unclear at this point how it will play out. I doubt very much that the notorious alarmists will not have egg on their face. Alas, a testable hypothesis. Gotta love those, too.

But, yes, with the surging numbers in most Aussie states their health systems will be stressed. More next week. Meanwhile watch in amazement how the narrative has switched almost overnight.

/ Pandemic normality in Europe

The number of daily new cases has sky-rocketed in the UK and France over Xmas and new year’s eve (to about 200 grand of reported cases in the last couple of days, again numbers that are only so reliable for the same reason that AU numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.) The curious outlier is Germany where numbers have drifted down for a couple of weeks now and where the last couple of days numbers have kept steady at roughly the same level, comparing on a per-capita basis very favorably with AU (about half the incidence rate currently) and even more favorably with UK and France (on a per-capita basis about one fifth). And all this while the well-documented geographic distribution of cases has remained fairly stable, with Saxony and Thuringia remaining the major sources of concern. It is not clear why neighboring France and Germany show such a different trajectories. The fact that those German states bordering directly on France have relatively low incidence rates makes things even more puzzling.

And that’s the wrap for week 52 of 2021 (and the begin of 2022).

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Greetings from Paris!



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Andreas Ortmann

Andreas Ortmann

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …