Federal courts considering the Biden administration’s vaccination mandates—including the Supreme Court at Friday’s oral argument—have focused on administrative-law issues. The decrees raise constitutional issues as well. But there’s a simpler reason the justices should stay these mandates: the rise of the Omicron variant.
It would be irrational, legally indefensible and contrary to the public interest for government to mandate vaccines absent any evidence that the vaccines are effective in stopping the spread of the pathogen they target. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening here.
Both mandates—from the Health and Human Services Department for healthcare workers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for large employers in many other industries—were issued Nov. 5. At that time, the Delta variant represented almost all U.S. Covid-19 cases, and both agencies appropriately considered Delta at length and in detail, finding that the vaccines remained effective against it.
Those findings are now obsolete. As of Jan. 1, Omicron represented more than 95% of U.S. Covid cases, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because some of Omicron’s 50 mutations are known to evade antibody protection, because more than 30 of those mutations are to the spike protein used as an immunogen by the existing vaccines, and because there have been mass Omicron outbreaks in heavily vaccinated populations, scientists are highly uncertain the existing vaccines can stop it from spreading. As the CDC put it on Dec. 20, “we don’t yet know . . . how well available vaccines and medications work against it.”