Everyone needs to get ready to learn some more Greek letters. Scientists have warned that the meteoric rise of Omicron in the US, and everywhere else, has all but guaranteed that it is not the last variant that we are going to see.
Every infection provides an opportunity for the virus to mutate, and omicron has an edge over previous variants: it spreads much faster, despite emerging in a world with a strong patchwork of immunity from various vaccines and prior illnesses – whatever we may think, that is impressive.
Nobody knows what coming variants are going to look like, nor how they might shape the pandemic, but there is no guarantee that they will be mild in the way that omicron appears to be. There is also no guarantee that existing vaccines will protect against them.
Experts are urging wider vaccinations now, while they are still known to work.
“The faster omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation, potentially leading to more variants,”Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University
Since its emergence in mid-November (2021), the omicron variant in the US, and across the globe, has spread fire through dry grass. Research shows that this variant is four times more contagious than the original version of COVID and twice as contagious as delta.
Could the Omicron variant in the US become as mild as the common cold?
Because the omicron variant appears to be milder in terms of symptoms than delta, its behavior has sparked some hope that it may be the start of a downward trend that will eventually see the virus become as mild as the common cold.
It is certainly a possibility, experts say, because it is in the best interests of the virus to not kill the host quickly as this reduces their ability to spread further. That said, viruses don’t always get less deadly over time.
“People have wondered whether the virus will evolve to mildness. But there’s no particular reason for it to do so, I don’t think we can be confident that the virus will become less lethal over time.”
Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University
Viruses are experts in adapting to their environments
Becoming progressively better at evading immunity helps a virus survive. When COVID-19 first hit the world, nobody was immune. When the vaccines conferred some immunity to most of the world, the virus was forced to adapt – hence the variants.
There are a lot of evolutionary paths viruses can take. Animals, for instance, can incubate a virus and unleash new variants into the world. Dogs, cats, farm-raised mink, and deer are carriers of COVID-19, and these animals could potentially mutate the virus within them before the virus jumps back to people.
When variants do develop, scientists have said that it is difficult to know from genetic features, which variants will take hold. For instance, omicron has a lot more mutations than the variants that came before it – around 30 exist in the spike protein that allows it to attach to human cells.
By comparison, the IHU variant that has recently been identified in France, and is being monitored by the WHO (World Health Organization) has 46 mutations and hasn’t spread much at all.
Global vaccination rates are too low for the virus to become endemic
Experts have said the virus will not become endemic, like the flu virus, as long as global vaccination rates remain so low. At a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that protecting the public from future variants depends on ending vaccine inequity, globally.
The Director-General said he would like to see at least 70% of people in every country vaccinated by the middle of this year. Right now, there are dozens of countries where less than 25% of people are fully vaccinated.
In the US there are still many people that continue to resist widely available vaccines.
In the meantime, new variants are inevitably going to emerge, says Louis Mansky, director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.
With so many people unvaccinated, he said, “the virus is still kind of in control of what’s going on.”