The omicron variant of Covid-19 has sparked great fear. With time, we may find the fear to have been justified, but we may find the opposite: that this is good news for the economy.
It’s still early days for our knowledge of omicron. Waiting to learn more seems to make sense, but consider this: Business decisions are being made every day. Any person who waits for perfect certainty—about the economy, technology or Covid-19—will never make a single decision. In many areas decisions have to be made this week. So it’s worthwhile to consider how omicron may be good for the economy.
Omicron seems to be displacing the delta variant in South Africa. Ted Wenseleers showed that delta’s share of total Covid-19 cases in South Africa has plummeted while omicron has surged. Because the early indications show that omicron was highly transmissible, it could well displace the delta variant around the world.
So far omicron has triggered a surge in infections in South Africa, but not a comparable increase in deaths. There’s good reason for the virus to mutate to be less dangerous. Bugs that kill their hosts don’t replicate as much as bugs that allow their hosts to remain alive. Many viruses in the past have evolved to be milder. We cannot take this idea too far, however.
The omicron virus may have mutated so that it has greater ability to infect those who already had been exposed to earlier variants. That’s no surprise to South African scientists, who have observed a very high past infection rate in their population. The virus could not get ahead by finding people never exposed to any version of Covid-19, so it found a way to infect the previously ill, this theory goes.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said recently that current vaccines probably help protect against severe illness from the omicron variant, and that new vaccines are under development that would be more targeted against omicron. Given the speed with which our vaccines were developed, we may have new versions being tested in the lab right now. The question will be how long we have to wait for regulatory approval.
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From an economic forecasting viewpoint, business leaders should consider the upside potential of omicron. Although it is way too early to be sure, we may find that the disease becomes dominated by a less dangerous mutation. Illness would continue if this happens, but with fewer deaths and hospitalizations. People would come to feel more comfortable dining out, traveling and seeking routine non-Covid healthcare tests and procedures. The rosy view is far from certain, but current evidence is not more pessimistic.
Companies that that are especially sensitive to the Covid pandemic should try to delay big decisions. We’ll have better information in the coming weeks. But decisions that cannot be delayed should probably consider the possibility of a stronger economy rather than greater Covid problems.