The new SARS-CoV-2 variant, Omicron, is making governments worldwide prepare for more lockdowns and restrictions. However, there are signs that Omicron might be the best thing that could happen and could signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
Mild and Unusual
When the first reports of the rapidly spreading new variant came, many scientists expressed concern, and governments reacted accordingly. However, strange information is emerging. Omicron has 50 mutations compared to the other strains, of which 30 are in the spike protein that the vaccines target. The unusually large number of mutations implies that the new virus has been in circulation undetected for months. Another possibility is that it evolved in an immunocompromised person, where the virus could replicate for so long that it mutated.
Whatever its origin is, early observations indicate that Omicron is innocuous. The South African physician who first discovered the strain, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, says that the patients have “extremely mild symptoms.” However, more data on vulnerable populations are needed to draw any conclusions.
Several researchers worldwide are suggesting that Omicron may be a positive development. Dr. Ole F. Olesen at the European Vaccine Institute thinks it is. “It can be good news,” Olesen said in response to the early data coming out of South Africa. “If it is significantly milder than the Delta-variant, it can be an advantage that the different strains outcompete each other and that Omicron becomes the dominant variant.”
According to mainstream epidemiology, mild mutants are believed to be the mechanism by which pandemics end. It is a well-known mystery that dangerous viruses suddenly disappear for no apparent reason. For instance, the Spanish flu infected a third of the world’s population between 1918 and 1920 and killed an estimated 50 million people. Then it just stopped.
The Spanish flu virus still circulates today but is much milder. The leading theory to explain this curious pattern is that the virus mutated into an innocuous variant. People who carry a virus asymptomatically tend to spread it more quickly, making it more virulent. Therefore, many scientists believe that a mild variant spread like wildfire and created a wall of herd immunity that reduced and eliminated deadlier variants.
End in Sight?
Given how rapidly Omicron is spreading and displacing other variants, it could potentially spell the beginning of the end of the pandemic. It is still too early to draw any conclusions. More information is needed, but Dr. Arnoldo Frigessi, professor of biostatistics at the University of Oslo, estimates that Omicron could be the dominant variant between six and ten weeks after the first recorded case. If so, the deadliest leg of the pandemic may be over by the spring of 2022.
~ Read more from Caroline Adana.