Scientists have said that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 could fasten the transition of the virus from pandemic to endemic.
They posited that due to omicron’s high rate of transmission and danger to unvaccinated and non-boosted people, hospitalizations and deaths could rise significantly in the coming weeks and months — but survivors could emerge with a degree of so-called “natural immunity” that could help protect against Covid’s next variant of concern.
“As all the public health folks have been saying, it’s going to rip right through the population,” said Dr. David Ho, a world-renowned virologist and Columbia University professor. “Sometimes a rapid-fire could burn through very quickly but then put itself out.”
Notably, natural immunity isn’t nearly as reliable as vaccine-enabled immunity. Roughly 62% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated as of Wednesday. Only 30% of those people have received a booster dose, crucial for bolstering protection against omicron, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s a “speculative” theory, Ho says, based on how most viruses typically act — and Covid has certainly taken some unpredictable turns over the past two years. But the possibility has been discussed among infectious disease experts for some time.
The “best-case scenario” would be a highly contagious Covid variant that doesn’t make most people particularly sick, and creates some level of temporarily baseline immunity in the U.S., Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at New Hyde Park, New York-based hospital network Northwell Health, said
“It could certainly help end large spikes of deadly Covid with high hospitalizations,” Farber says.
Omicron is highly contagious, but its influence on hospitalizations and deaths is yet unconfirmed by researchers. In South Africa, where the variant was first detected last month, hospitalizations and deaths have remained relatively low despite a sharp rise in new Covid cases — but experts warn that the country’s vaccination demographics and hot December weather could be influencing that trend.
Still, as long as large portions of the world remain unvaccinated, Covid will keep spreading and mutating, Farber says. That means the pandemic’s future timeline is highly uncertain, even as experts broadly agree that Covid will eventually become an endemic and potentially seasonal disease.
Rather, people will have to learn to live with it. Regular vaccinations and antiviral pill treatments could combine with infection-born immunity to make Covid outbreaks significantly less severe in the coming years — not unlike how doctors manage the flu, an endemic seasonal disease that has caused multiple pandemics over the past century.
“This virus is so well adapted for human-to-human transmission that it’s never going to away,” Brewer says. “There will be periods when there will be more cases and [fewer] cases, just like it occurs with influenza every year,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.