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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The race to figure out just how dangerous the Omicron variant is will likely be a global effort, but some experts are skeptical that the U.S. will play a dominant role.

Why it matters: The CDC has repeatedly come under fire for inadequate data collection throughout the pandemic — and figuring out how to respond to Omicron requires a lot of data that doesn't currently exist.

Where it stands: There are way more questions than answers when it comes to Omicron.

  • We don't know whether it can outcompete the Delta variant, which is currently dominant around the world.
  • We don't know whether it makes people sicker than Delta does.
  • And we don't know how well vaccines or prior infections protect a person against it, or how well current treatments work against it.

What we're watching: "What matters is whether you see over time a significant fraction of U.S. infections become Omicron rather than Delta in areas where there's a head-to-head competition," said Cornell virologist John Moore.

  • That would suggest Omicron will replace Delta as the most common COVID variant.
  • The other huge data point to look for, Moore said, is how many vaccinated people are hospitalized with Omicron. If there's "a significant number of infected Omicron people in hospital, that would be a significant grounds for concern."

The intrigue: The CDC has been under fire for months for its lackluster tracking of breakthrough infections, and the U.S. was reliant on other countries for real-time data on waning vaccine effectiveness as Delta became dominant over the summer.

  • The U.S. may once again be reliant on data from other countries when it comes to understanding Omicron, although that's at least in part because more cases have been detected elsewhere so far.
  • The Biden administration talks to South Africa regularly, but doesn't expect basic neutralization data until the end of next week at the earliest. That will give us a much better idea how well vaccines protect against Omicron.

What they're saying: "To the extent we’re constantly relying on Israel, Britain and now South Africa ... that is the definition of flying blind," said Zeke Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • "We're not going to be the first to determine whether vaccine works, what the breakthrough rate is, et cetera, and that's not because we don’t have [Omicron] here," he added.
  • Some experts also say that the U.S. still isn't doing enough genomic sequencing, and Emanuel said it's "geographically unrepresentative."

Yes, but: The CDC has drastically improved its genomic sequencing capabilities this year, and is now sequencing one of every seven positive cases found by a PCR test, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said this week.

  • The agency is sequencing ten times as many samples each week as it was earlier this year, Walensky said.

The other side: Where data comes from may not matter very much, as long as it's reliable, Moore said.

  • "If something is seen in a major European country or Israel or wherever it is, it's going to be the same in the United States ... you've got the global aspect of this to fall back on," Moore said.

The bottom line: We won't understand Omicron until it spreads more, providing more data, and until enough time passes for current infections to translate into hospitalizations.

  • In the longer term, the U.S. may need to improve its data collection methods.
  • "I think with every passing month, we see more and more glaringly the data deficiencies," Emmanuel said. Congress or the administration "need[s] to set a very clear standard for the data infrastructure we're going to create, and make sure it's real-time data and not modeling."

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: No evidence that healthy children, teens need boosters, WHO says — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older.
  5. Variant tracker

First look: Senators propose bill to ban corporate PACs

Sens. Jon Ossoff and Mark Kelly. Photos: Chip Somodevilla (left), Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) will soon propose a bill prohibiting for-profit corporations from establishing and managing political action committees, according to a copy of the legislation obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The introduction of "The Ban Corporate PACs Act" comes amid heightened scrutiny on Capitol Hill regarding money in politics, including efforts to bar companies from influencing political campaigns and federal elections. It would likely face a court challenge and First Amendment concerns.

34 mins ago - Technology

Exclusive: YouTube shuts down two Oath Keepers channels

Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers. (Photo: Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

YouTube has deactivated two channels linked to the Oath Keepers militia group whose members have been charged in relation to the January 6 Capitol riot, the company told Axios.

The big picture: Social media platforms that were used to plan or promote the Capitol attack have moved with varying degrees of speed to bar the accounts involved.