Premium

Israeli health minister: First indications are that the vaccines are working against Omicron

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Big if true, but one can’t help noticing that the minister offers no evidence to support his conclusion. Is he looking at any numbers that back this up? Or is he going off of the fact that none of Israel’s four — just four — confirmed Omicron cases have needed serious medical care yet?

There are small samples, there are really small samples, and then there’s … four.

Hopefully he’s going off something sturdier than that. The world needs good news about turning the corner on COVID.

There are indications that individuals fully vaccinated against corona within six months or with the booster are also protected against the Omicron variant, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Tuesday, after another two cases were identified, bringing the total to four.

“In the coming days we will have more accurate information about the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron, but there is already room for optimism, and there are initial indications that those who are vaccinated with a vaccine still valid or with a booster will also be protected from this variant,” Horowitz said while visiting the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Two of Israel’s four patients are doctors who work together at a hospital outside Tel Aviv. One of them returned recently from a conference in London and presumably infected his colleague. Each is experiencing mild symptoms. Each is triple-dosed, as so many Israelis now are. Is that the “initial indication” of vaccine efficacy Horowitz is citing?

Not to be cynical, but the health minister for a government that’s been pushing boosters aggressively for months would be naturally eager to highlight information suggesting that those boosters work. That doesn’t mean Horowitz is wrong or lying, just that he has an incentive to look for encouraging signs about the effectiveness of a third dose.

But maybe there’s more to his confidence than the two doctors. The Jerusalem Post adds this tantalizing — and very thinly sourced — detail via another Israeli media outfit, one that’s getting buzz on social media this afternoon:

Later in the evening, a report by Channel 12 said the Pfizer vaccine is just slightly less effective in preventing infection with Omicron than with Delta – 90% as opposed to 95% – while it is as effective – around 93% – in preventing serious symptoms at least for those vaccinated with a booster.

According to the report, the ability of the variant to infect is higher than Delta but not as much as feared – around 1.3 times higher.

At the same time, those not inoculated have a 2.4 times greater chance of developing serious symptoms, a significant figure.

That would be shocking, as it would confound the expectations of experts like Moderna’s CEO that the new variant’s many mutations will make it meaningfully better at evading the vaccines. Where did this remarkably encouraging data come from, though? The JPost implies that it came from South Africa, which was supposed to share some new data on the variant and the vaccines with Israel’s government today. But the Israeli health ministry claimed that it hadn’t received that data yet and also hadn’t seen the data published by Channel 12. And with so few confirmed cases of Omicron so far, it’s hard to imagine how even South African scientists would be able to arrive at figures as precise as 93 percent effectiveness for the vaccines after less than a week. Wouldn’t one need thousands of subjects who are demographically similar to be able to compare outcomes among the vaccinated and unvaccinated to a statistically significant degree?

Even if Channel 12’s report is accurate, the preliminary data has the same unmistakable stench as early exit poll numbers on election night. It could be right, but you don’t want to invest too much in it emotionally for fear of your heart breaking as the actual results come out.

And if it is true, the higher transmissibility it found for Omicron means the new variant should burn through the unvaccinated population even more quickly than Delta did. Maybe it won’t do as much damage; so far cases in South Africa have been mild. But if it’s as only virulent as Delta yet more transmissible, the unvaxxed are in for another wave this winter. For the moment, until they have reason to believe otherwise, scientists are assuming that Omicron induces the same symptoms as previous variants did:

There is a normal range in symptoms among people infected by the coronavirus, from none to severe, so it takes a large set of people to get the full picture.

“I don’t think right now there’s any reason to expect that this virus is less or more severe than any other circulating variants,” said vaccinologist Florian Krammer of Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. “The base assumption that we should have is that it behaves like other SARS-CoV-2 variants and we need to figure out, over time, if it’s more severe, if it’s less severe. But to assume right now that it might be attenuated in some kind of way I think would be problematic.”

I’ll leave you with Fauci, ever the downer, warning people not to get their hopes up.