Nov 29, 2021 - Podcasts

The latest on the Omicron variant

This Thanksgiving weekend many in the world were reacting to the latest, heavily mutated COVID-19 variant first detected in Botswana. On Friday, the World Health Organization called the new strain — Omicron — a variant of concern.

There’s a lot we don’t know about this new strain, even as countries around the world are scrambling to get ahead of it with travel bans. But last night, Canada confirmed the first two North American cases of the variant in Ontario.

  • Plus, how streaming and social media are changing legal outcomes.
  • And, an alarm bell on American democracy.

Guests: Dr. Namandje N. Bumpus, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine; and Axios' Sara Fischer and Dave Lawler.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, David Toledo and Jayk Cherry. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday November 29th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: how streaming and social media are changing legal outcomes. Plus, an alarm bell on American democracy.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: the Omicron variant.

This Thanksgiving weekend, many in the world were reacting to the latest - heavily mutated Covid variant first detected in Botswana. On Friday, the World Health Organization called the new strain - Omicron - a variant of concern. There’s a lot we don’t know about Omicron even as countries around the world are scrambling to get ahead of it with travel bans. But last night, Canada confirmed its first two North American cases of the variant in Ontario.

Dr. Namandje Bumpus is the director of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine and is back with us this morning on what we DO know so far. Hi, Dr. Bumpus.


NIALA: So I got an alert about this on Thanksgiving, about the variant, and then monitoring all the headlines over the weekend, seem alarming. Can I just start by asking a lot of people seem to be very worried about this. Are you?

NAMANDJE: Well, it certainly is a variant of concern, I mean, this variant has dozens of mutations. It has some that we've seen in other variants that have been concerning and been even more virulent.

And it has some additional ones that have not been seen before. I think it is definitely something to continue to watch and for more research to be conducted, to really understand this varying and what it might be capable of as far as infection and, also disease outcome.

NIALA: How long will it be till we have some answers about transmissibility, how effective the vaccines could be against?

NAMANDJE: So I think we should know in the next few weeks, certainly with all of the interests around this, I think that their laboratory is already doing the studies to look at how effective it might be. I think that there are more and more will be people trying to sequence this variance. So people that are testing positive for the SARS CoV-2 virus certainly there will be tests done to see if they have this variant. And so we'll start to be able to see whether we can tie it to an increase of infection. You know, it's being seen in different parts of the world and the lab studies of course, will be really important in that too. And those I think are, have started immediately.

NIALA: We heard Dr. Fauci tell George Stephanopoulos yesterday that it's only a matter of time before the variant gets to the U.S.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: When you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here. The question is, will we be prepared for it?

NIALA: Dr. Bumpus, how should we be preparing for this?

NAMANDJE: Yeah. So I think that's right. I think that the important thing is to start looking for it, to start doing the sequencing, to try to see if in new cases in the U.S. if we are seeing this variant, and I think that that's really important. In the next couple of weeks we will certainly know more about the spirit, whether it is in the US for instance, whether it's more transmissible, whether it changes disease outcomes. So I think that there's a lot we need to know, um, you know, before we’re too alarmed, but at the same time, I think that there are things that we can do. I think that there's increased importance for the booster shot, for instance, especially in people who are more likely to get severe outcomes from COVID-19. And I certainly do think that, you know, the crowded indoor spaces still aren't necessarily, um, going to be ideal when we think about trying to prevent transmission of the virus.

NIALA: Dr. Namandje Bumpus is the director of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins medicine. Thank you for being with us, Dr. Bumpus.

NAMANDJE: Thank you for having me.

NIALA: In 15 seconds, we're back with how streaming companies’ work are having real life consequences in the legal realm.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned the rape conviction of Anthony Broadwater, who had spent 16 years in prison. He was exonerated largely because of a film project about the crime.

And that’s not the only film that’s led to recent legal change.

Two men convicted of killing Malcolm X in 1966 were also just exonerated after an investigation found they hadn't received a fair trial. That actually followed a Netflix docu-series ‘Who killed Malcolm X.’

Axios’ media reporter Sara Fischer explains how streaming services are effecting change in the justice system . Hi Sara.


NIALA: So we mentioned the Malcolm X case. How else have we seen this recently?

SARA: Well, the Britney Spears thing was just massive. The #FreeBritney movement took hold at the end of last year, beginning of this year. And it sort of just spread virally like wildfire after the New York Times debuted a documentary called ‘Framing Britney Spears’ on Hulu. And that attention ultimately helped to get Britney freed from her conservatorship two weeks ago.

NIALA: And this isn't just documentaries? Social media plays another role in carrying this further into the mainstream?

SARA: Yes. Look at what happened in mid-November with Julius Jones, he was granted clemency by Oklahoma's governor, Kevin Stitt. And that really happened after celebrities like Kim Kardashian brought a ton of awareness to his case. So social media definitely has the power to change the legal outcome of some of these cases and in real time.

NIALA: So Sara, in some ways, this is kind of like the role that media has always played, which is shedding a light on something or bringing attention to an issue that maybe people wouldn't have noticed.

SARA: Yes. I'd say the key difference with some of these true crime documentaries or series is that stories about crime often involve institutions that have historically been buried with bureaucracy. Think about police departments. Think about government agencies. That can be really tough to navigate and to break ground on, especially if you don't have the time and the resources. Now, not all of them get it right every time, but for the ones that do get it right, and are able to uncover new information, to your point, Niala, that can have massive impact on the outcome of the legal proceeding.

NIALA: That's Axios’ media reporter, Sara Fischer. Thank you Sara.

SARA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: Democracy is in decline around the world in nearly every region and by almost every measure - that's according to one major annual report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Sweden. But for the first time, the report lists the United States as a quote "backsliding" democracy. I asked Axios' world editor Dave Lawler to break this down for us -

DAVE LAWLER: The turning point, according to the report, was when the sitting president Donald Trump rejected the results of the 2020 election. The U.S. is joined in the backsliding column by countries like Poland, Hungary, Brazil and now also India is in that column. Which means that at least 70% of the world's population lives in countries that are either authoritarian think China or Saudi Arabia, a hybrid regimes like Russia and Turkey, where you have elections, but they're not on a level playing field or backsliding democracies, countries like the U.S. that are very much in the democracy column, but that the authors of the report think are moving in the wrong direction. This report is not alone - there are other indexes from Freedom House and other organizations that say democracy around the world has been in decline for oh 15 years or more. And so this is certainly not an entirely new trend, but it is new to see the U.S. listed as one of the countries of the greatest concern.

NIALA: Dave Lawler is Axios’ world editor.

Before we go - Yesterday was the start of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights.

The first candle of the National Menorah was lit outside the White House last night where Second Gentlemen Douglas Emhoff addressed the crowd:

DOUGLAS EMHOFF: As we light this menorah on this lawn of the free, let us rededicate ourselves to doing everything we can to shine a light on hate so we can put an end to hate.

NIALA: Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president. Happy Hanukkah!

That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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