Omicron will be home for Christmas

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Happy Monday, and yeah, I think I'm still talking to you about the pandemic. I was hoping I would be talking a lot less about the pandemic these days, but we are in the midst of very significant learning on the omicron variant, and I thought I would share what we know and what we really don't know, because the headlines obscure that.

What we know: Big news is that the vaccines don't work very well at all to prevent spread. And that's even true for the mRNA vaccines, the best vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, that if you've taken two shots, which means that you're considered fully vaccinated and you've got your app, or you've got your vaccine passport, you really aren't protected from getting infected from omicron. Pfizer showing after two vaccine jabs something like 23% effectiveness, which is not effective at all. And the non-mRNA vaccines look like they're even worse, which means that a very, very transmissible strain is not being prevented by the vaccines. That's the bad news, and it's bad news.


Having said that, we know that they work really well to prevent hospitalization and death. And that's not just true for the mRNA vaccines. It's true for other vaccines too. And by the away, it's true even before you get a booster shot. In other words, if you've just gotten two shots from Pfizer, two shots from Moderna, you're really not going to get hospitalized or die from COVID. It's very, very unlikely indeed, but you are quite likely to be able to contract it and spread it, and that's a problem.

Now, we've seen a lot of headlines that say that Omicron is milder as a variant. And the reality is, we don't know that. What we know is that a lot more people are vaccinated, and we also know that the vaccinated people are particularly among those that are most vulnerable. The oldest, the people that have preexisting conditions. That is a population that is very significantly vaccinated, in some countries close to 100%, which means that the outcomes are milder than they would have been from delta, simply because omicron is hitting populations that are more protected against hospitalization and death. And that the people that aren't vaccinated are primarily people that aren't likely to get sick from COVID. Younger, healthier populations. But we don't yet have any conclusions around to what extent you are equally or more or less likely to get seriously sick if you are unvaccinated, even if you're unvaccinated and you already got COVID, than from delta. And that uncertainty is something we probably won't have real data on for at least another week or two.

And I will tell you that the epidemiologists that I've been talking to tell me that if they were to guess, they'd guess that so far, educated guess, that it's probably about the same or maybe a little milder, but not much, than delta, and that most of the change is from the change in population, as opposed to the impact of the disease.

Okay. We also know that omicron is spreading really, really fast. That it's going to be dominant in the United Kingdom and very shortly as a variant. It's already in 30 states that we know of in the US. That means it's really in every US state, and it will be the dominant spread in the United States within a few weeks. So yes, omicron will be home for Christmas. And also some good news is that vaccinations are getting pushed up. We're seeing people more quickly get vaccinated, get their boosters as a consequence of the news around omicron.

Having said all of that, the staggering level of spread even among vaccinated populations mean that hospitals could easily get overwhelmed again as a consequence of this. In the next week in the United Kingdom, that's absolutely possible. In Denmark, that's absolutely possible. And in the United States over the coming month, that's absolutely possible as well. So we are not out of the woods, and that means in terms of travel, in terms of vaccine passports, you're going to see a lot of changes.

Increasingly, if you've got two vaccines, that's not going to be seen as enough to travel internationally, which is annoying to a lot of people, because you kind of assumed that it would even a week or two ago. Now, no, not so much. And what if you've been boosted? Well, you're probably going to need another booster in six months' time. Again, in all of the apps and the vaccine passports and the papers that are allowing you to go to restaurants, and shows, and travel, in those places where those regulations exist are likely to get updated to require a booster shot, and then eventually another booster shot, too.

Madness. When does it all end? Well, it is a problem because the nature of the vaccines and the relationship with the disease make this much harder to politically respond to. In other words, the argument for getting your booster shot is not about whether or not you're going to get sick. The argument about getting the booster shot and another booster shot is about protecting people that are unvaccinated, protecting those that are immunocompromised, even if they have been vaccinated, and that's a harder argument to make. It's a harder argument for politicians to be effective at. It's a harder argument to push mandates upon a population.

And having said that, you look at the last few months, and Kaiser Family Foundation just put out a study in the United States where we're still seeing 1,000 deaths on an average day from COVID. 163,000 people did not have to die from COVID if we had gotten full vaccination rates. In other words, the science was there, the vaccines were there, and just the effectiveness of those vaccines on populations that are not immunocompromised, 163,000 people would be alive today that are not from COVID because we couldn't get our act together in getting vaccines rolled out, getting people to be willing to take them.

And that is the problem going forward. I'm not going to die from COVID. If you've been vaccinated, you're not going to die from COVID, but a lot of people will. And they will from this omicron variant, because we are unable to ramp out boosters fast enough, and second boosters fast enough, which a lot of people are sick of, a lot of people aren't going to feel comfortable with. We don't have the regulatory capacity to get it done, and that means the non-vaccinated population is going to be incredibly vulnerable and exposed. And it also means that economic impact of all of that will continue to grow, and that's around the world. That's not just the United States, that's everywhere, and that's particularly older and vulnerable populations.

So that's what we're looking at. Merry Christmas to everybody. I'm sorry. I wish I had better news on that front. I'm still hoping that over the next week or two, we get more information that will allow us to say that omicron is actually somewhat milder in form than delta is, but right now we don't have that information. The information we have is not so happy. So that's it, and I hope everyone is doing okay, and I will talk to you all real soon.

People working at computers in a room labeled Malware Lab

Microsoft observed destructive malware in systems belonging to several Ukrainian government agencies and organizations that work closely with the Ukrainian government. The Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) published a technical blog post detailing Microsoft’s ongoing investigation and how the security community can detect and defend against this malware. Microsoft shared this information over the weekend to help others in the cybersecurity community look out for and defend against these attacks. To read more visit Microsoft On the Issues.

President Vladimir Putin

No one knows whether Russian President Vladimir Putin plans on invading Ukraine. But the president of the United States sure seems to think this is a real possibility, saying Wednesday that Putin will likely "move in" in the near term. Biden, prone to political gaffes, was then forced to awkwardly walk back comments that Russia would face milder consequences from the West in the event of a "minor incursion."

The timing of this blunder is... not great. It comes just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in hopes of lowering the temperature after recent diplomatic efforts in Geneva were deemed a failure by Moscow.

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Omicron has arrived. It's more contagious, but less severe. Some parts of the world are even looking forward to the pandemic becoming endemic.

Not China. Xi Jinping's zero-COVID strategy has worked wonders until now, but it's unlikely to survive omicron, explains Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

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Chilling at the beach, retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel is so over politics. Or is she?

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Happy Tuesday after the long weekend for those of us that had a long weekend. I thought I would kick us off with the first major foreign policy crisis of the Biden administration. And that is of course, Russia-Ukraine. Afghanistan, of course, was a debacle, but not exactly a global crisis. This of course has the potential to really change the way we think about European security and about US relations with the other major nuclear power in the world. So, I would say that the level of concern is even higher and there are a lot of things we can say.
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What We’re Watching: Xinjiang at the Beijing Olympics, Boris in deep(er) trouble, Indonesia’s new capital

Selling Xinjiang. Xi Jinping — a man well known for both his grand vision of China’s future, and for his willingness to get large numbers of people to do things they might not otherwise do — said in 2018 that he wanted 300 million Chinese people to participate in winter sports. The Chinese government announced this week that this goal has been met in honor of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which open in China’s capital on February 4. Multinational companies are consistently impressed by the commercial opportunities created when 300 million people decide to try new things. But it’s an inconvenient truth that most of China’s most abundant snow and best ski slopes are found in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, a place where Western governments and human rights organizations have accused Beijing of imprisoning more than one million minority Uyghurs in re-education camps. In these prisons, critics say inmates have experienced “torture, and inhumane and degrading treatment.” As China’s government opens new profit opportunities in Xinjiang, multinational corporations will face pressure from multiple directions not to invest there.

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Hard Numbers: Tongan emergency fundraising, EU docks Poland pay, new Colombian presidential hopeful, Turkey gets UAE lifeline

345,000: As of Wednesday afternoon ET, Tonga's Olympic flag-bearer has raised more than $345,000 online to help the victims of Saturday's volcanic eruption and tsunami. Pita Taufatofua, a taekwondo fighter and cross-country skier, has not yet heard from his father, governor of the main Tongan island of Haapai.

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week, discussing Boris Johnson's tenuous status as UK PM, US Secretary of State Blinken's visit to Ukraine, and the volcano eruption in Tonga:

Will Boris Johnson resign?

It certainly looks that way. He's hanging on by his fingernails. He's losing members of Parliament. He's giving shambolic media interviews. In fact, I think the only people that don't want him to resign at this point is the Labour Party leadership, because they think the longer he holds on, the better it is for the UK opposition. But no, he certainly looks like he's going. The only question is how quickly. Is it within a matter of weeks or is it after local elections in May? But feel pretty confident that the days of Boris Johnson are numbered.

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