Wednesday, nearly two weeks after news of Omicron ignited global panic, Pfizer announced its vaccine works against the variant but provided few details. Why couldn’t the National Institutes of Health or Centers for Disease Control mobilize any of their 7,000-plus scientists to answer this question rapidly and transparently as the world waited in limbo? What have our public-health leaders been doing?
They’ve been responding to Omicron with one simple message: We got this. They insist they’re following the new variant extremely closely. If so, why not immediately test antibodies from each of the vaccines against it, as well as antibodies from natural immunity? And where’s the real-time data dashboard of all known Omicron cases, including illness severity and whether the infected person was vaccinated, boosted or had previously had COVID. That would be a lot more useful than all the speculation.
The NIH has two of the nation’s highest-level virology labs, BSL-4 labs. They are part of the Biodefense Research Plan of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But if their current response time is any indication of how fast they’d respond in a real bioterrorism emergency, we’re in trouble.
The Omicron experiment the world has been waiting for is not exactly the Manhattan Project. It’s not solving the riddle of the Sphinx. It’s a simple lab experiment: test neutralizing antibodies induced by each vaccine against the new variant. Each experiment takes about four days, lab experts told me, and can be done in tandem. If the NIH and CDC were really on top of Omicron, they would have reported results for each of the vaccines by now. Instead, they deferred to Big Pharma.
While markets have been experiencing whiplash and businesses paused getting back to normal, our nation’s public-health officials are doing a lot of talking. They’ve been talking in White House briefings, on radio shows and television, eloquently explaining Omicron’s unknowns.
Friday, Fauci will give a distinguished lectureship for my alma mater, the Harvard School of Public Health, as New York City implements a universal vaccine mandate to pre-empt Omicron. Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul halted some elective surgery in the state, citing Omicron’s unknowns. Surgeon colleagues I know throughout New York and Boston are beginning to ration surgical procedures. Much of this chaos could have been better managed with timelier laboratory and clinical data on Omicron.
Perhaps Fauci could have done fewer media interviews and university lectures this week and last and instead personally overseen an NIH Omicron-antibody-binding experiment. When a Texas nurse contracted Ebola in 2014, Fauci had her flown to the NIH clinical center (for no good reason), where he put on a space suit and visited her bedside. Dr. Fauci, the country needs you to put on your lab coat again.
We also need CDC chief Dr. Rochelle Walensky to create an Omicron case tracker, a Web site with real-time (not delayed) clinical information on case severity, hospitalization status (if any) and age and immune status. The NIH and CDC have more than 40,000 employees, supported by more than $50 billion in taxpayer funding. Surely someone can stop what he’s doing to help us get good data.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen the turtle-speed bureaucracy of our public agencies consistently fail us. According to research my Johns Hopkins research team conducted, in 2020, the year the pandemic hit, the NIH pivoted just 5 percent of its $42 billion budget to COVID (less than half what it spent on aging research that year). More alarming was finding the average time for the NIH to hand off money to researchers was five months. The Food and Drug Administration is no speed-racer either. It sat in decision paralysis while looking into Johnson & Johnson vaccine complications — a prolonged pause that fueled vaccine hesitancy.
The CDC has not done much better. The original sin of the US COVID response was the CDC’s decision to not allow university and private labs to test patients, a policy it reversed months into the pandemic. Since then, the CDC has consistently put out tardy and incomplete data, missing key information on risk stratification, the role of obesity and a breakdown of child deaths by comorbidity as we imposed blanket restrictions on 72 million children. (Germany just reported that no healthy child 5 to 17 died of COVID — all deaths were in children with a comorbidity.) In fact, most of our COVID findings have come from Israel and scientists abroad.
GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology recently found that their antibody product works against Omicron. That’s good news. But it raises the question: Why haven’t all pharma companies reported their results?
More than ever, we need the NIH and CDC to focus less on talking and more on what matters most: doing the science and being transparent with the public.
Marty Makary, MD, MPH, is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of the New York Times bestselling book “The Price We Pay.”