Avoiding the worst-case COVID scenario

In a sea of confusion and misinformation, the imperative to vaccinate marks the island of sanity — and the only proven means of averting the darkest of forecasts

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Omicron variant spike protein mutations (MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research)
Omicron variant spike protein mutations (MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research)

Early in the COVID pandemic, in March 2020, our Hebrew sister publication, Zman Yisrael, published a rather terrifying interview with the respected Israeli futurist Prof. David Passig, in which he suggested most unhappily that the virus might kill 300 million people.

“I’ve been talking about this for at least the past 10 years,” Passig noted, “and if what we are seeing now is the scenario we warned of, then it will go on for years… It will completely change the course of the 21st century. I spoke about it in mid-December [2019]… I said it was coming and that our projections talk about a crisis that will last between five and 10 years. If the virus that breaks out is really lethal and constantly mutates and improves itself, then our worst-case scenario talks about 300 million people dying. Since no one yet knows what exactly this virus is, I’m still hoping that it isn’t the virus we have all been worried about.”

I elected not to publish a translation of the Passig interview in The Times of Israel at the time, because it seemed so outrageous a prediction, though I did mention it in an op-ed. I cited it in the context of the apocalyptic warnings being delivered by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declared that the pandemic was unlike anything the modern world had seen and compared it to the 1918 Spanish flu: “Tens of millions of people died from it,” Netanyahu recalled, “at a time when the world population was a quarter of today’s.”

By contrast, we published more than one article downplaying the likely impact of the pandemic, citing experts assessing that millions were not going to die and accusing Israeli and world leaders of whipping up the public into unjustifiable panic. (The weight of our coverage, I should stress, took the pandemic gravely seriously from the start, highlighting its dangers and noting that it had caught humanity off-guard, undefended and vulnerable.)

Over five million worldwide deaths later, COVID continues to make fools of almost all of us — experts, health chiefs, political leaders, commentators… editors.

Facing the virus’s latest variant, the highly transmissible Omicron, Israel has now all but closed its borders — a relatively extreme response compared to much of the rest of the world, and one that reflects two years of wildly varying global responses to the pandemic.

Prof. David Passig (Bar Ilan University)

Different countries have opted for everything from the most radical of lockdowns to the most defiant of business-as-usual approaches, then flipped and flopped as COVID has continued to confound. The mighty CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) of the United States proved radically incapable of even attempting to live up to the “control” obligation in its name, Michael Lewis’s “The Premonition”  reports persuasively; other nations’ healthcare establishments worked fast, aggressively and effectively to contain virus outbreaks, and appeared to be vindicated, but sometimes at terrible economic and social cost.

The global public has, unsurprisingly, struggled to make sense of it all, agonizing over whom and what to believe. Public confidence has been undermined by  misinformation and deliberately disseminated fake news; by eroded faith in the institutions it ought to be able to rely upon (such as the FDA, its reputation so battered lately by the Sackler opioid disgrace); by understandable cynicism regarding major drug firms’ naked financial interest in maximizing vaccine sales.

In Israel, right now, confidence in leadership decision-making is hardly helped by leaked recordings showing our leadership in shoot-from-the-lip dispute, such as from the heated ministerial gathering Tuesday night in which Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman went head-to-head with the health experts, and tacitly with his own prime minister, in declaring that there was no need for new restrictions since Omicron is “no more disruptive at the moment than flu. And just as we live with flu, now we live with Omicron.”

A worker from the Hevra Kadisha burial society prepares bodies before a funeral procession at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims, in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

As has been the case throughout this virus and its unfurling mutations, there’s patently much we have yet to definitively learn about Omicron. But what we do seem to be clear on is that the combination of vaccination and social distancing has proven effective in minimizing the pandemic’s worst effects.

Almost two years of statistics worldwide have verified vaccine effectiveness against the pre-Omicron variants, and the radically disproportionate vulnerability of the non-vaccinated to COVID’s devastation. And initial data, as presented to Israel’s ministers Tuesday night (and cited in interviews Wednesday by a member of the government’s advisory team, Prof. Doron Gazit), indicates that those who are fully vaccinated, including with booster shots, are about a twentieth as vulnerable to serious illness after infection by the Omicron variant as those who are not.

Children aged 5-11 receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, at Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem on November 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This pandemic appears set to continue to both slap us and make fools of us for a long time to come. But in a sea of confusion and misinformation, the imperative to vaccinate marks the island of wisdom and sanity — and the only credible means, for now at least, of avoiding anything approaching the kind of worst-case scenario this editor, at least, considered too outrageous to indulge less than two years ago.

Passig stressed in his interview that his bleakest forecast was around 30 percent plausible. In the interim, vaccines were developed more quickly, and have proved more effective, than almost anybody predicted.

And that’s the point: Even if this is the virus that Passig’s statistical modeling foresaw, we have the tools to prevent its worst ravages.

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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