Boosters Effective Against Omicron

Some good news for a change – booster shots work against Omicron. Even the CDC admits this is true!

Three new studies released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledge the effectiveness of booster shots even against the Covid-19 variant known as Omicron. In one of the studies, a CDC analysis found that a third dose of either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine was at least 90% effective against preventing hospitalization from Covid-19 during both the Delta and Omicron periods, reported The Wall Street Journal.

During the Delta period, vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization from Covid-19 was 90% from two weeks until about 6 months after dose two, 81% from at least six months after dose two and 94% at least two weeks after a booster dose. When Omicron was dominant, vaccine effectiveness against hospitalization for the same periods were 81%, 57%, and 90% respectively.

An additional study published in Nature also supports booster doses and backs up previous findings from Pfizer and BioNTech showing that a third dose of their vaccine neutralizes Omicron, but that its two-dose regimen is significantly less effective at blocking the virus. According to a more recent study, two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provided little neutralizing antibody immunity against Omicron infection even at one month after vaccination, but a third dose offered more than 50% protection.

In a separate study published recently by the CDC, research showed that among patients in California and New York during the Delta wave, prior infection provided more protection against Covid-19 than vaccination, though both offered significant defense from the virus. In other words, natural immunity from prior infection may be even more protective than mandated vaccines. I’ll bet the White House cringed when the CDC released that information!

The data for that study was collected before Omicron’s emergence and the widespread booster campaign, so many people were likely experiencing some waning immunity from vaccination. The CDC said the findings couldn’t be applied to the Omicron wave.

The Omicron wave appears to be losing steam already, just as it did in South Africa, where it originated in November. Hospitalization numbers are declining in the U.S., as well as in Europe, where France became the second big European economy after the U.K. to begin lifting Covid-19 restrictions. British prime minister Boris Johnson has actually lifted all masking mandates – to the widespread applause of the House of Commons!

Many hospitals in places like New York and Washington, D.C. are reporting fewer Covid-19 patients and smaller numbers of staff absent with infection. Seven-day averages in states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are showing sharp declines from recent Omicron-fueled peaks, Johns Hopkins data show. Better get your booster shot now before it’s too late!

Drug Prices – What’s Happening?

Most people would agree that drug prices are rising fast. I’m sure my wife would, and I couldn’t argue with her based on what we are paying. But are they really rising?

Dr. Joel Zinberg, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says no. He’s also director of Paragon Health Institute’s Public Health and American Well-being Initiative and associate clinical professor surgery at Icahn Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Zinberg takes issue with the commonly held belief drug prices are out of control.

Zinberg says the worst thing that could happen now is for President Biden to propose drug price controls to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Although the Build Back Better legislation is on the rocks, the drug price control portion of the bill may survive, if only through executive orders. That’s what you do when democracy stands in the way of your agenda.

President Biden insists such controls are needed because pharmaceutical companies are “jacking up prices on a range of medicines.” He promises to “end the days when drug companies could increase their prices with no oversight and no accountability.” I guess he’s forgotten about free market forces – capitalism – in this era of socialist thinking.

Dr. Zinberg tells us an inconvenient truth – drug prices are lower than when Biden took office. Even as inflation is running rampantly out of control, officially at 6.8% but in reality, much higher (the largest increase in 39 years), prescription drug prices actually fell 0.3%. To understand this fact, you must understand that list prices are not actual selling prices. Although a case can be made for increases in list prices, the availability of discounts and rebates have actually lowered the prices we are paying for prescription drugs.

The best measure of drug prices is the CPI-Rx, which measures price changes in a large basket of drugs over time, accounting for discounts and most rebates. Another strength of the CPI-Rx is that it accounts for price declines that occur when consumers substitute cheaper generic versions for brand-name drugs. Too often, Mr. Biden and others focus on a few high-priced drugs and fail to consider the entire market.

It is true that prices for prescription brand-name drugs are higher in the U.S. than in other countries. These higher prices make it possible to fuel drug innovations that bring us such life-saving drugs as the Covid vaccines. But U.S. regulatory, legal and incentive structures encourage aggressive price competition and switching from branded to generic drugs. As a result, Americans use more generics (9 out of 10 prescriptions) and pay less for them (16% lower on average) than in other developed countries. Nearly all European countries impose price controls on generics, making them less available and more expensive.

Discount coupons have had a large impact in America. Companies such as GoodRx and SingleCare have lowered prices, sometimes drastically, for many commonly used drugs. It is often less expensive to use these coupons than to use healthcare drug insurance. A recent analysis of per-unit prices of 27 types of insulin by GoodRx found that overall retail prices declined by nearly 6% since 2019 because of recent approvals of generic and biosimilar drugs. This is largely due to a strong push to approve more generic drug manufacturing during the Trump Administration by FDA Director Scott Gottlieb.

What will price controls do to drug innovation? This is the most alarming news. University of Chicago economist Tomas Philipson estimates Biden’s proposed price controls could lead to a 29% to 60% reduction in research and development, resulting in 167 to 342 fewer new drug approvals over the next 20 years. Where would we be today if they had done that in the years preceding the Covid pandemic of 2020?

Zinberg says, “Speeding approvals and increasing competition are a far better prescription than price controls that would strangle future innovation.”

Should We Catch the Omicron Variant?

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 is spreading like wild fire. Case numbers are steadily rising, though hospitalizations and deaths are not. Is it inevitable you’ll catch the Omicron variant? Is that a good thing?

Rob Arnott, writing in The Wall Street Journal, makes the case for intentionally getting the Omicron variant. He says, “The prudent response to Omicron might be to encourage vaccinated people and even unvaccinated young adults to catch it, while protecting the at-risk population. One measure of a pathogen’s lethality is the case fatality rate – the ratio of the death toll to the known cases. The 28-day average case fatality rate in South Africa, the likely origin of the Omicron variant, tumbled in the past six weeks from 8% to 0.2%, barely higher than the flu. Omicron will assuredly confer new, complementary antibodies on its victims, providing an additional measure of immunity to more lethal Covid variants.”

It is clear that Omicron is fast becoming the “flu bug of the year” – although it is not an influenza virus. We certainly have never taken such extreme measures to avoid the flu in the last 100 years since the pandemic of 1918. In my lifetime of over 70 years there were never any school closings, business closings, mask or vaccine mandates to avoid the flu. In fact, despite having mostly effective flu vaccines for years, only about 40% of the general population usually took the flu vaccine.

To be sure, in an average year about 40,000 Americans die from the flu, though most are elderly and have severe co-morbidities such as immune-deficiency, pulmonary and heart diseases. Yet even in this population, only about 60% received vaccinations. We just never took the flu as seriously as we have Covid-19.

Arnott bases his thesis on the assumption that more lethal variants of Covid-19 than Omicron will come upon us in the future and getting Omicron will increase our natural immunity to these more lethal variants. This is a big unproven assumption. Furthermore, he is assuming no lasting effects from getting the Omicron variant, which is also unproven. Therefore, his “cost-benefit analysis” about Omicron is very speculative.

Cost-benefit analysis certainly could be useful in determining government policies, but sadly this never seems to enter the minds of politicians. Lockdowns are happening again in Europe and Latin America after rising case numbers, even though death rates were falling. Arnott says the latest fatality rates for Europe, the U.S. and Latin America are 0.5%, 0.4% and 0.3% respectively, down from high rates with the Delta variant of 4 to 7% in June, 2021. In truth, the real case fatality rates are much lower since there are legions of people with asymptomatic or mild cases who either never get tested or never report their home testing results. Also, many are dying in hospitals with unrelated diseases who are counted amongst the Covid deaths simply because all hospital admissions today are tested for Covid. This means the actual fatality rates for Omicron are below 0.2%, which is commonly associated with influenza.

I’ve written a lot on the harms that lockdowns cause and won’t repeat that here. (Lockdowns Historically Failed) But more lockdowns are not the answer. It is certainly true that government policies cannot prevent the spread of a highly infectious virus such as Omicron – although vaccinations will help limit the disease in most people to something similar to the common cold or flu. But I wouldn’t recommend intentionally getting the Omicron variant any more than I would recommend getting the flu. To suggest intentionally letting people catch the Omicron variant in order to save lives is a risky public health policy I doubt even our feckless public health officials would recommend.