Omicron Could Signal the End of the COVID-19 Pandemic 

“One of these now-common cold coronaviruses could have been responsible for an epidemic in the late 1800s that did not cause such mild disease at the time,” says Nadia Roan, an associate researcher at the Gladstone Institutes. “However, as community immunity began to build, it became more endemic.” It stands to reason that, if we as a community build up enough immunity against it, Omicron could become one of the most common coronaviruses.”

Scenario #2: The virus could continue to evolve in unpredictable and potentially lethal ways. 

However, a different, troubling scenario is also possible. There is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is a particularly unpredictable virus—after all, Omicron was an entirely new variant that stunned experts with its sudden and efficient ability to spread so quickly. Most virologists would have guessed in the fall of 2020 that if a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 emerged, it would be a beefed-up version of Delta—there was even talk of a Delta Plus. But Omicron took them all by surprise.

“This isn’t a Delta-plus variant,” says Jeremy Farrar, president of the Wellcome Trust, a global health research foundation. “It’s out of nowhere and came from a virus from 2020, which tells us something.” We haven’t seen one strain of this virus evolve into another. We’ve seen things come from a much broader range of sources. That means we can’t expect Omicron’s daughter or son to be the next thing we have to deal with. It could be something from a different stage of the virus’s evolutionary history.”

That means that if we want to be ready for future, potentially dangerous variants, we need to closely monitor the virus around the world so that we can identify potentially highly transmissible variants earlier and, hopefully, control them better. 

And, as surprising as it was, Omicron didn’t appear out of nowhere. SARS-CoV-2 most likely evolved in stages, with the increasing transmissibility of the Omicron variant going largely unnoticed. For example, researchers reported what should have been alarming changes to SARS-CoV-2 in three air passengers flying from Tanzania who tested positive for the virus when they landed in Angola about a year ago.

These modifications allowed the virus to better evade the immune system and spread more efficiently. While their viral sequences did not exactly match that of the variant now known as Omicron, they displayed enough concerning signs of adaptation to human immune defenses that we should have taken stronger action to contain those cases. 

On January 24, 2022, security guards stand in front of people lining up for nucleic acid tests to detect COVID-19 at a mass testing site in Beijing, China. While China has largely contained the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic, and while cases remain relatively low, recent outbreaks of the virus, including the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant, have prompted the government to lock down people in various major cities and strengthen health-care measures. As China maintains its zero-COVID policy, mask mandates, mass testing, immunization boosters, quarantines, some travel restrictions and bans, and lockdowns have become the norm. (Getty Images/Kevin Frayer)

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