Embracing Omicron: A Recipe for Danger or Salvation?

Cian O'Toole, Contributing Writer

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are starting to feel a creeping fatigue regarding COVID-19 restrictions and continuous vaccine developments. Apart from its high transmissibility, the omicron variant is defined by lower rates of hospitalization and death.

Odds are that you’ve heard a friend question the severity of the virus, and suggest that simply contracting omicron to “get it over with” could be an easy way out. This is known as “embracing omicron.” While creative, the embracing omicron theory relies on incomplete data and speculation about natural immunity and long-term viral behavior. Although the argument has percolated among conservative thinking groups since the beginning of the pandemic, omicron’s lessened severity has revived a more bipartisan belief that the rejection of new vaccine development and safety precautions is the ideal path towards the long-awaited end of this pandemic.

Don’t judge too quickly; variants compete on the basis of transmissibility—how fast they can spread and multiply within a population—and omicron has been winning that competition for several months, inhibiting other variants from taking over. Thus, some theorize that it would be dangerous to target the omicron variant with a new vaccine and open up the playing field for new, possibly deadlier variants to dominate in the absence of omicron’s record-high transmissibility.

Proponents of this belief have begun to view omicron as a counterintuitive “blessing-in-disguise,” and advocate for termination of vaccine development and a relaxation in COVID-19 precautions to avoid prolonging the pandemic—an effort that could save children the costs of another year of limited social development, and for some students, the challenging return to online learning.

The embracing omicron theory relies on incomplete data.

However, this theory also rests on a treacherous assumption. It’s a wide-spread belief that I, and likely you, have held: it seems unquestionable that a COVID-19 infection would yield more antibodies and a more strengthened immune system than a vaccine. Unfortunately, the data only slightly supports this idea.

Many respected research organizations continue to deny any differences between exposure and vaccine immunity. “The efficacy of natural infection is not as predictable as vaccines,” according to Shangxin Yang at UCLA Health. Although a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that natural immunity was around six times more effective at preventing delta wave infections than vaccination, the organization will continue to endorse vaccines and booster shots, which undoubtedly reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

Skeptics of the embracing omicron argument agree with this assertion from the CDC; the statistics on natural immunity aren’t compelling enough to justify the inevitable deaths from omicron before it fizzles out. Even Dr. Robert Wachter, at the UCSF Dept. of Medicine, who is responsible for recent theories about omicron’s “silver lining,” recognized that letting omicron spread could result in variants with unpredictable features.

With this level of uncertainty and speculation, encouraging individuals to take a stance against COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines is very dangerous. It’s helpful to understand the basis of the embracing omicron argument, but implementing the theory, even to a moderate extent, would put an incalculable strain on our healthcare resources.

This piece also appears in our February 2022 print edition.