Could Omicron be the final Covid variant of concern?

·5-min read

Covid-19 is likely not going to be eradicated, instead, it could eventually circulate like the flu — and one thing is for sure, Omicron likely won't be the last variant.

Writing for The Conversation earlier in December, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, Ben Krishna, who specialises in Immunology and Virology, said while Omicron won't be the last variant, it could be the last variant of concern.

It's not likely SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, will disappear completely.

"If we are lucky, and the course of this pandemic is hard to predict, SARS-CoV-2 will probably become an endemic virus that slowly mutates over time," he wrote.

"The disease might very likely be mild as some past exposure creates immunity that reduces the likelihood of hospitalisation and death. 

"Most people will get infected the first time as a child, which could occur before or after a vaccine, and subsequent reinfections will barely be noticed."

People queue up to sign in at the Opera Bar on December 29, 2021 in Sydney, Australia.
Covid could become seasonal just like the flu in the future. Source: Getty Images

Like the flu, we could have a season where Covid is more prevalent, Krishna said.

"Influenza viruses can also have a similar pattern of mutation over time, known as “antigenic drift”, leading to reinfections," he said. 

"Each year’s new flu viruses are not necessarily better than last year’s, just sufficiently different. Perhaps the best evidence for this eventuality for SARS-CoV-2 is that 229E, a coronavirus that causes the common cold, does this already."

How the endemic phase could happen

Epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman told Yahoo News Australia there was no reason to think Omicron was the last variant, saying new variants of influenza were constantly being discovered.

"When we use the term endemic, we mean that the virus is at a constant level in the community with predictable patterns. By that definition, Omicron is absolutely not endemic," he said.

"Potentially, with second generation vaccines and vaccination of infants, mainly unvaccinated people will end up being infected, and an endemic phase could happen. 

"But it will be a year or two yet!"

Nurses tend to a Covid-19 patient at the intensive care unit of the Delafontaine AP-HP hospital in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, on December 29, 2021.
Covid-19 will likely become endemic, though no one is sure when that will happen. Source: AFP

Australia's former deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth declared in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday: "In 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

"Driven by the inexorable, inevitable spread of the Omicron variant and the use of vaccines, the global population will generate immunity to this virus."

He added: "Absent the perennial efforts of a small but vocal section of public health academia and a dwindling number of media personalities, our community is ready and can move to a phase of living with COVID-19 as an endemic virus."

Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten said in a presentation to investors earlier this month the company expected some regions to continue to see pandemic levels of Covid-19 cases over the next year or two.

Other countries will transition to "endemic" with low, manageable caseloads during that same time period.

By 2024, the disease should be endemic around the globe, the company projected.

"When and how exactly this happens will depend on evolution of the disease, how effectively society deploys vaccines and treatments, and equitable distribution to places where vaccination rates are low," Dolsten said. 

"The emergence of new variants could also impact how the pandemic continues to play out."

In January this year, Nature asked more than 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers and virologists looking into Covid for their thoughts on whether we could eradicate it.

About 90 per cent of the respondents said they believed Covid would become endemic, so we would still have Covid-19, but it would be manageable. 

Delta and Omicron lead to 'tsunami of cases'

The simultaneous circulation of the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus is creating a "tsunami of cases", World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says.

"Delta and Omicron are now twin threats driving up cases to record numbers, leading to spikes in hospitalisation and deaths," Tedros told a news briefing on Wednesday.

"I am highly concerned that Omicron, being highly transmissible and spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases."

Tedros repeated his call for countries to share vaccines more equitably and warned that the emphasis on boosters in richer countries could leave poorer nations short of jabs.

An aerial view of cars lining up at a drive-thru Covid testing site at the Zoo Miami site on December 29, 2021 in Florida.
Omicron has caused cases to surge across the world. Source: Getty Images

Daily Covid-19 infections have hit record highs in the United States, UK, swathes of Europe and Australia as the new Omicron variant of the virus races out of control, keeping workers at home and overwhelming testing centres.

In NSW, more than 22,000 cases were announced on Saturday and cases are steadily starting to rise in other parts of Australia.

Although some studies have suggested the Omicron variant is less deadly than some of its predecessors, the huge numbers of people testing positive mean hospitals in some countries may soon be overwhelmed.

With the surge in cases, businesses might struggle to carry on operating because of workers having to quarantine.

with Reuters

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