Omicron Could Signal the End of the COVID-19 Pandemic 

Omicron appears to be the ideal implementation of this strategy. Luban discovered a series of changes in the virus’s genetic sequence last November that made the variant at least several-fold more transmissible than the previous one, Delta, which was already twice as transmissible as the original version of SARS-CoV-2. Because of its high transmissibility, Omicron quickly took over the world, displacing the previous variant, Delta, in just two months.

“The speed with which Omicron took over was truly incredible,” says Shangxin Yang, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s nearly magical. In two weeks, it went from accounting for 1% of COVID-19 cases worldwide to 50% of cases, and in one month, it accounted for nearly 100% of cases. That’s incredible speed; we never imagined a virus could do that.”

Yang cites additional evidence that suggests Omicron’s high transmissibility may be SARS-final CoV-2’s hurrah. Whereas previous strains of the virus infected cells deep within the human respiratory tract, nestling all the way into the lungs, Omicron preferentially infects cells in the upper respiratory tract. This makes it more like a common cold and may explain why, at least among the immunized, Omicron causes milder disease than previous variants. 

Early versions of SARS-CoV-2 were also known to cause cell fusion, which occurs when a virus infects one cell and then co-opts other viruses that have infected other cells to fuse into a large viral mass to create a larger virus-making machine. That’s good for the virus, but it’s bad for the patient because it can cause inflammation, which can destroy cells and tissues; inflammation is a hallmark of late-stage, severe COVID-19 disease. 

Omicron does not cause such cell fusion and thus causes less cell damage, which may explain, at least in immunized people, why those infected with Omicron do not get as sick. According to recent data from the United Kingdom, vaccinated people who are infected with Omicron are two-thirds less likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people who are infected with Delta.

“All of this comes together to create the ideal scenario for ending the pandemic,” Yang says. “This is how most other pandemics involving respiratory pathogens ended.” They spread like wildfire, and eventually the majority of people were either vaccinated or infected, and the pandemic ended when the population reached herd immunity.” 

This does not mean the end of SARS-CoV-2, but it may indicate the end of its pandemic phase. COVID-19 should then become endemic, requiring us to learn to live with a virus that has already learned to live with us.

According to Yang, “at this point, the virus has already achieved its goal of establishing a balance with its host—humans.” It spreads easily among hosts but does not kill them, so it lives among them. The virus has mutated to the point where it simply prefers to coexist with us without causing too much trouble. In exchange, we must learn to live with the virus as if it were a common cold.” 

He claims that this isn’t just wishful thinking; there’s historical precedent. Four coronaviruses have already been circulating among us for decades, causing mild symptoms similar to the common cold. These coronaviruses could have, hypothetically, swept through the world’s population like SARS-CoV-2 is now, and then, as more people became infected and thus protected, these viruses could have become endemic, happy to infect vulnerable people with weakened immune systems wherever they could. 

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