The first US confirmed Omicron variant infection occurred in California on December 1, 2021. By December 23, there were a reported 168,409 Omicron infections across the country. This exceeds the peak of Delta variant cases by nearly 4,000. Most recently, Omicron infections helped set the global pandemic record when the US recorded 1 million new infections on January 3, 2022.
So, what do we know about Omicron?
Omicron seems to be more contagious than other variants. Fortunately, it also appears milder, resulting in fewer hospitalizations and deaths. Some preliminary studies suggest that getting infected with the Omicron variant may help boost immunity against the more harmful and lethal Delta variant. One article published in the Wall Street Journal argues that Omicron could save lives by preventing Delta infections.
But many important questions remain about the new Covid-19 variant, leaving many Americans concerned for the immediate future. While any new Covid-19 variant is troubling, our greatest concern might be how the federal government will address rising Omicron cases. Recent backlash from a decision by the Biden Administration suggests more bureaucratic mismanagement and deadly mistakes are on the way.
Last December, the federal government began shipping fewer monoclonal antibody treatments to hospitals across the country. Most monoclonal antibody treatments provide highly effective treatment for the Covid-19 Delta variant. They are much less reliable in treating the Omicron variant. Anticipating Delta infections have peaked, and Omicron infections are on the rise, the Biden Administration began purchasing and shipping more Sotrovimab antibody treatments, which are more effective against Omicron, instead.
But as of December 20, about 25 percent of new Covid-19 cases were still from the Delta variant. This means fewer patients with the comparatively more dangerous variant received one of the most trusted and widely used treatments. Even as of mid-January, when Omicron composed nearly 100 percent of new cases, most Covid-19 deaths were still caused by the Delta variant.
The decision has received considerable backlash. Frustrated and angered, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody wrote a letter to the President declaring that his actions created a “sudden suspension of multiple monoclonal antibody therapy treatments.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott similarly accused the President of “hoarding the antibody therapeutic drugs.”
Sadly, governmental misallocation and mismanagement of vital Covid-19 resources far predate Omicron.
It’s no surprise that our government has inefficiently distributed medical goods throughout the pandemic. Markets efficiently allocate goods to their most desired (or needed) use by relying on prices that emerge from voluntary exchange. When we entrust the government to allocate goods instead of markets, the information prices convey is lost – leaving the government with the complicated task of determining what resources to buy, where to send them, and how much to send without much guidance or feedback from consumers (or patients).
To say entrusting the government with this role during the pandemic has not gone well would be an understatement.
Hailed as the “standard of care” for severe Covid-19 infections, remdesivir has helped countless patients survive and recover from the virus. To help provide the treatment to as many patients as possible, the federal government purchased nearly the entire world’s supply last September to distribute to hospitals. Shortly after, many hospitals reported rationing remdesivir for their patients, while others reported having too much.
The federal government allocated over $660 million to the US Army Corps of Engineers to construct field hospitals when the pandemic began. Few of them have ever treated a single patient because, as one NPR article describes, “there wasn’t enough planning to make sure these field hospitals could be put to use once they were finished.”
After pioneering scientific discoveries brought us the Covid-19 vaccines in November 2020, the government floundered to get them to healthcare providers. As the rollout process struggled to begin, one Business Insider article highlights that there were “millions of doses of vaccine sitting in a warehouse because the federal government hadn’t told it where to send them.” Even after initial distribution errors, many states experiencing outbreaks received considerably fewer vaccines than promised.
These are a small sample of government blunders that have prolonged the pandemic and harmed patients. We don’t know what will happen with the Omicron variant, or the harm it will bring. We know that mistakes in allocating medical goods to treat patients only make a challenging situation worse.
The government has made many of these mistakes, and it doesn’t seem to be learning from them.
Raymond March is a faculty fellow at the NDSU Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE) and an assistant professor in the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, and a contributor to Young Voices. His research has appeared in the Southern Economic Journal, Public Choice, Journal of Institutional Economics, and Research Policy. He has published articles in National Interest, Washington Times, Washington Examiner, The Hill, RealClearHealth, and elsewhere.
Raymond is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and the director of FDAReview.org, an educational research and communications project on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).