In This Episode
- Scientists in South Africa announced on Thursday that they detected a new variant of the coronavirus: Omicron. Cases caused by the variant have been identified in almost a dozen countries, but not yet in the U.S. Epidemiologist and host of “America Dissected” Dr. Abdul El-Sayed gives us a better sense of what we know and the much bigger amount of things we don’t.
- And in headlines: Ghislaine Maxwell’s federal trial starts today, legendary Black fashion designer Virgil Abloh died after battling cancer, and South Korea announced plans to build its own metaverse.
- Washington Post: “Officials: Variants ‘haunt’ world with vaccine imbalance between rich and poor nations” – https://wapo.st/3lgDGTp
- Politico: “Omicron raises concerns about global vaccine equity and hesitancy” – https://politi.co/3lhIDLr
Gideon Resnick: It’s Monday, November 29th. I’m Gideon Resnick.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, reminding you that this year’s leftovers from Thanksgiving are valid as Hanukkah presents.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. So if you forgot to buy something and the turkey is still fresh, you have our blessing to gift it.
Josie Duffy Rice: To honor tradition, you should make the turkey presents last for all eight nights.
Gideon Resnick: Just build them into different shapes. On today’s show, the trial against Ghislaine Maxwell begins today. Plus legendary Black designer Virgil Abloh has passed away.
Josie Duffy Rice: But first, our last episode before a Thanksgiving focused on COVID, and unfortunately, this one does too.
[clip of WHO official] We are announcing B 1.1.529 as a variant of concern, named Omicron.
Josie Duffy Rice: That was a World Health Organization official last week after scientists in South Africa announced on Thursday that they had detected a new variant of the coronavirus: Omicron.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, we don’t know how serious this is so far, but what we do know is that the Omicron variant has an apparently high number of mutations, ones that could possibly make it more transmissible and also better at evading vaccine protection. As of Sunday night, cases had been identified in almost a dozen countries, but so far it has not been identified in the U.S.—that’s as of yet. Although public health experts are saying that it is likely to be here by now. Here’s Dr. Anthony Fauci on ABC’s This Week, yesterday:
[clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci] We are on the lookout for this. The CDC has a good surveillance system, so if and when—and it’s going to be when—it comes here, hopefully we will be ready for it by enhancing our capabilities via vaccine, masking, all the things that we do and should be doing.
Josie Duffy Rice: So beginning today, the U.S. will stop any non-citizens from entering if they flown in from one of eight African countries, including South Africa. The EU, Japan, Canada, and others imposed their own travel bans on several African countries too, just hours after Omicron was first announced. There’s a question, though, of whether those bans make sense, and if they’re fair.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, we wanted to get a better sense of what we know and the much larger amount of things that we don’t know at this point about Omicron. So we have with us again, epidemiologist and host of America Dissected: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. Welcome back to What A Day.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: What a day. What a weekend. It is fantastic to be here to have the opportunity to talk about yet another COVID variant. So let’s get to it.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, so let’s start very simply with what we know about it so far.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: The reason that this one is so concerning is because when you look at the set of mutations that it’s acquired, you have a lot of the same mutations as both Delta and Beta. And now you put those two together and you have the potential for a more transmissible and potentially also more vaccine-resistant variant of the coronavirus. And that’s what has people really concerned right now.
Gideon Resnick: Mm hmm.
Josie Duffy Rice: Dr. Angelique Coetzee the South African doctor who first spotted Omicron, was on the BBC yesterday and said this:
[clip of Dr. Angelique Coetzee] What we are seeing clinically in South Africa—and remember, I’m at the epicenter of this where I’m practicing—is extremely mild. For us, that mild cases. And we haven’t admitted anyone. I spoke to other colleagues of mine—the same picture.
Josie Duffy Rice: So can you talk a little bit more about what else we don’t know about the variant?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, there are really three open questions that I want people to pay attention to. The first: is Omicron more transmissible? There’s a lot of reason to believe that it would be but is it actually? And that, that we’ll learn a lot more about as we watch how this virus enriches, which is a fancy way of saying how much faster it out-competes other variants for the overall proportion of new COVID cases. The second question is: is there vaccine resistance? Can it do what we call escape from the vaccine? Does it render our vaccines less effective? Not ineffective—and I want folks to pay attention to that. There’s very, very, very little probability that any new variant is going to be ineffective, right? You’re still talking about COVID here. And then the third question: is this more or less severe? Now there’s a world where this variant may be less severe than Delta or other variants before it, in which case you have potentially a more transmissible but less severe variant of the virus. And it’s important to remember our history here, because what we understand about the 1918 flu pandemic is that the thing that likely ended it is that it evolved a variant that was less severe and more transmissible so, you know, it ripped through the population, giving everybody who was vulnerable at that point—of course, they didn’t have vaccines back then—but giving them all the acquired immunity if they survived, and because it was less severe, it took far fewer lives. And at that point, because there were not enough hosts to be able to sustain its movement, it became endemic. It’s still the flu that we deal with today. It’s, you know, distant ancestor of the flu that we’re still dealing with.
Gideon Resnick: Right. As we do learn more, what does this tell us overall about how the virus can still mutate? What does this tell us about where this can still go?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: To anybody who’s been watching this pandemic, it’s not actually all that surprising that there’s still more tricks that COVID has up its sleeve. And a lot of this has to do with its capacity to mutate and evolve. Now, over time, as more people get vaccinated and more people pick up acquired immunity, the capacity to do this is more limited. But remember, we’ve been talking for a long time about the responsibility to make sure that we are getting enough vaccine to countries that don’t have the same wealth and capacity that ours or Europe’s do. And that is largely sub-Saharan Africa, which still remains the least vaccinated continent overall. And while there are supplies of vaccines in South Africa, those supplies were slow in coming. And in some respects, the longer it takes to get initial vaccines out there, the more time misinformation and disinformation have to pollute people’s minds and dissuade them from getting them. What we’re seeing here is the consequence of our failure to vaccinate enough people globally as fast as we needed to. So it reminds us that the single most important thing we can do right now is get more people vaccinated. Whether that means more people getting their first doses in places like sub-Saharan Africa, or it means people getting their third doses in places like ours. A lot of that has to do with the global geopolitics and economics of vaccine waivers and vaccine manufacturing. Our capacity to manufacture enough vaccines is there. The problem, though, is that there has been some real resistance to enabling manufacturers in places like sub-Saharan Africa—and South Africa in particular, which has high-quality medication manufacturing capacities—to be able to do that thing, in large part because of politics around the patents.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, wow. Another that I had been thinking about recently, given that, you know, we saw companies like Moderna say if they need to, they can make a vaccine that specifically targets Omicron by as early as next year. Let’s say that hypothetical does happen. What does that mean for a person who is fully vaccinated against prior versions of the virus and may have received a booster recently?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It probably means that they’ll be in line to get another vaccine. You think about a flu vaccine, right? We get another dose of a flu vaccine every year—which is an important reminder for folks who haven’t gotten their flu vaccine, please do. There’s a lot between here and there. Remember that there’s going to be a lot of science that we really need to let come forward before we start talking in hypotheticals about those circumstances. But if it does come to that, it would mean another vaccine. It would be very similar to the vaccine that you’ve already gotten. What would likely happen is just the peace of mRNA that is the sort of main payload of the vaccine dose would be a little bit different, targeting some of the differences in the spike protein in Omicron. But again, a lot more science between here and there. And we’ve got to answer those three questions. Is it more transmissible, is it more severe, and is it more vaccine resistant, than the other variants we’ve dealt with?
Gideon Resnick: Definitely.
Josie Duffy Rice: Several countries have instituted travel bans on those coming from different African countries, but also Israel said it will ban all foreigners traveling to the country. Morocco announced it will stop all incoming flights for two weeks. So can you talk a little bit about the wisdom and limitations of these kind of travel bans?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, I mean, these are extremely blunt tools to try and deal with a new variant that is spreading out from its country of origin rather quickly. I worry a little bit about this, in large part because it has a real detrimental effect on countries who have done a great job actually monitoring their population for new variants and so it punishes them for doing what they needed to do to alert the global public about this. At the same time, if you look at the US’s approach, it doesn’t really make any actual public health sense. So we have a ban on non-citizens, but if you’re a citizen and you are in South Africa right now and you just saw a ban on non-citizens, the thing you’re probably asking is how can I get to the United States as fast as possible? And if that’s the case, it’s not like Omicron has the capacity to discriminate between people who are U.S. passport holders and not.
Josie Duffy Rice: Right.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: If you have a policy that now incentivizes people to come home from the affected community as fast as possible, that may not work in your favor. What we really should have been doing from the very beginning and really should be doing now is instituting a far more strenuous quarantine policy. You know, if you in the midst of this pandemic tried to visit New Zealand or Australia, for most of the pandemic you would come off the plane, be taken to a quarantine facility, you would be on your own for 10 to 14 days and then from there you’d be allowed to enter the general population. That makes a lot of sense to me. But imposing the kind of travel restrictions that really can have a deep and profound set of unintended consequences on a country when you’re allowing your own nationals to come without following these kinds of protocols, seems to me to be a lot more about PR than it does to be about public health.
Gideon Resnick: As we’ve been mentioning here, it is going to take us some time—weeks—to get a full picture of this variant most likely. Here’s Dr. Anthony Fauci getting at that point and what may or may not be coming. He said this to CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday:
[clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci] We are certainly have the potential to go into a fifth wave. In the fifth wave, the magnitude of any increase if you want to call it that—it will turn into a wave—will really be dependent upon what we do in the next few weeks to a couple of months.
Gideon Resnick: So given that, what do you suggest people do with this news and how to process it in the meantime? Is there anything else that like we can think about doing potentially differently before we actually know more of the answers to the questions you keep bringing up?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I know people are over the pandemic. Unfortunately, the pandemic keeps showing us that it’s not over with us. And I also know that with that, a lot of what I’m going to say is going to sound old hat and really frustrating to hear again. Number one: if you haven’t gotten your vaccines, please do. Number two: if you haven’t gotten your booster on your vaccines, please do that. Number three: I know that a lot of folks have been a lot more lax on masking—I think masking is a really important policy that folks can sort of enact on their own. And I also would recommend to policymakers out there to rethink some of their mask policies. From there, we’re going to learn a lot more in the next couple of weeks. And I do think that, you know, while it is easy to sort of have that overwhelming sense of like deja vu, particularly as we go into the holidays, I think it’s important for us to sort of step back, to think rationally and coolly and calmly about the situation that we’re in, do the things that we can to protect ourselves and our families, but then from there, let’s at science take its course.
Gideon Resnick: We will, of course, be following the story in the days to come, but that is the latest for now. We’re going to be back after some ads.
Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Gideon Resnick: The trial against Ghislaine Maxwell starts today in a Manhattan federal court. She is accused of grooming and sex-trafficking girls as young as 14-years old between 1994 and 2004 for Jeffrey Epstein. Before he could be tried in federal court himself, Epstein died in jail in 2019, creating no questions in the minds of anyone in the public. At least four women will be testifying against Maxwell, saying she preyed upon them when they were still under age. The trial is expected to last at least six weeks, and if Maxwell is convicted on all six counts that she faces, she could spend up to 80 years in prison. Another high-profile trial also starts today: the case against actor Jussie Smollett. In 2019, he claims that two men assaulted him in Chicago while yelling racist, anti-gay and pro-Trump slogans. But the local police say that he staged the whole incident, and a prosecutor accused him of lying to authorities. For that, Smollett is charged with six counts of disorderly conduct, and the jury selection is scheduled to start today.
Josie Duffy Rice: Gideon, Chicago police solved less than half of all murders in the city last year, so I’m, for one, am just thrilled that they’re wasting resources prosecuting this case. The fashion world is mourning the death of legendary Black designer Virgil Abloh, who died yesterday after a two-year long battle with cancer. He was 41 years old. Abloh is most known for being Louis Vuitton’s frst Black artistic director, as well as founding the street wear fashion brand, Off-White. He was also the creative director for Ye, a.k.a. Kanye West, before entering the fashion industry. Abloh family revealed in a statement that in 2019 he was diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of heart cancer. Abloh’s colleagues, friends, and fans took to social media to pay tribute to the designer after his death was announced by Louis Vuitton and Off-White. Stylist Zadrian Smith wrote to Abloh in an Instagram post, saying quote, “Thank you for being such an incredible expander for all of us Black boys who thought it would never be possible to exist at the luxury level of the fashion industry.” Just devastating.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, wow. South Korea is joining the metaverse, with Seoul announcing its plans to become one of the first municipal governments to have its own full-service virtual world. Now this comes after Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s plan to help develop the quote unquote, “metaverse”, a new iteration of the internet where users will interact using avatars. The mayor of Seoul, Oh-Sehoon, hosted a conference in the metaverse last month, attending it as his avatar to discuss the city’s rollout of “Metaverse Seoul”. After entering said metaverse through their smartphones, residents will be able to make reservations for city-run facilities, ride tour busses, and file administrative complaints. Essentially, they’ll be able to step inside a video game that is all loading screens. The city will be kicking it all off with a New Year’s Eve ceremony next month that residents can join virtually. The city plans to complete its metaverse by 2026 and eventually introduce other virtual reality equipment like goggles and controllers to give residents the full, immersive experience.
Josie Duffy Rice: OK, Gideon. I’m not totally sure I understood anything about that last headline because it’s so new and exciting.
Gideon Resnick: It is. Exciting, is the word. Definitely. We love everything metaverse here. For sure.
Josie Duffy Rice: Exciting was the most diplomatic word I had for it. However, it is more understandable than this next deadline. Get ready.
Gideon Resnick: OK, I’m not.
Josie Duffy Rice: If you’re looking forward to flying this holiday season, here’s a quick reminder of what you might be up against. Earlier this month, a woman on a Delta flight allegedly caused a commotion when she refused to stop breastfeeding her pet cat.
Gideon Resnick: Going to have to stop you there.
Josie Duffy Rice: I did say pet cat. You heard me correctly. A flight attendant who was on board described the incident in a TikTok, which appears to have been deleted. She said quote, “This woman had one of those, like hairless cats, swaddled up in a blanket, so it looked like a baby.”
Gideon Resnick: No.
Josie Duffy Rice: “She was trying to get the cat to latch, and the cat was screaming for its life.”
Gideon Resnick: As I will be in just a moment if you continue.
Josie Duffy Rice: I must go on. The people need the story. It sounds like this interaction had zero winners. Mothers are allowed to breastfeed on flights, but only to human kids. There is no cat-child loophole it turns out. There was just as much excitement on the ground last month at Washington Dulles International Airport, when officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced they seized a shipment of almost 4,000 bongs. The agency released a statement this past Wednesday explaining how the quote, “glass bongs violated U.S. laws on the importation of drug paraphernalia.” The shipment arrived from China, but sadly the $56,000 worth of bongs never made it to their final destination in Los Angeles, where presumably they were headed for the home of Seth Rogen. I am shocked at how cheap bongs are wholesale. It’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?
Gideon Resnick: That’s, yeah, it’s a good deal. I can’t do the math that quickly, but we were talking about what, it’s like 16 or something like that.
Josie Duffy Rice: Even less I think, we’re think 14? We could have figured out the math at some point, but we didn’t.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, we do, we chose to remain ignorant of it for our listeners. That’s how hard we worked for that. I also like the sleight of hand we just did to get people to forget about that traumatic cat story that you just subjected everybody to. It was like a, Oh, and by the way, here’s a fun little like, bong anecdote. Uh uh. No. People will remember and they will be angry.
Josie Duffy Rice: It’s got to go: metaverse, breastfeeding cats, bongs. That order is the only way to do it.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I just hope that everyone can go on with their day appropriately. But those are the headlines. One more thing before we go, before we head into what we can only expect to be another wild year given our lives, Crooked presents What a Year! Join Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor and a lineup of your favorite Crooked hosts, including—hey guys, us—for a night of sketches, audience games and much more.
Josie Duffy Rice: With your help, we’ll also be raising money for the No Off Years fund, so tune in live for the What A Year livestream on Tuesday, December 7th at 5 p.m. Pacific, 8 p.m. Eastern. RSVP at Crooked.com/whatayear.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, do chores in the metaverse, and tell your friends to listen.
Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just aviation laws about cat babies like me—worst event of all time—What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And Happy Turkey Hanukkah.
Gideon Resnick: I want to just leave a phrase out there for the audience to consider: stuffing latkes.
Josie Duffy Rice: Oh, interesting.
Gideon Resnick: Interesting.
Josie Duffy Rice: Really a trailblazer, this man?
Gideon Resnick: Thank you. What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.