It was five o’clock in the morning when Jeremy Luban first looked over the genetic sequence of the Omicron variant on his phone last November. Even at that late hour, the University of Massachusetts virus expert recognized Omicron as a problem.
First, there was the sheer number of new mutations—as many as 50, according to some estimates, with 30 of them in critical locations that vaccines and drug treatments target. Second, this new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus appeared out of nowhere, unpredictably, and with no obvious link to previous variants.
“It’s like looking at the first page of a comic book and seeing all of the Marvel villains gathered,” he says. “That’s exactly how I felt when I saw the sequence. How are we going to get through this? We can deal with one [mutation], but what about ten or more at once?”
Luban’s warning was shared by other public health officials, but it turns out that Omicron, like all villains, has an Achilles’ heel. This variant does not appear to cause severe disease in people who have been vaccinated or have been exposed to its predecessors. While it can still be dangerous for people who are unvaccinated or have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19’s effects, there is some hope for those who have been vaccinated.