Living Life Pandemic | The Scientific Magazine®
Iend of November 2021, The scientistThe editorial team of met to discuss increasing case reports, mostly from South Africa, of patients infected with the newly described Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. We talked about this latest development in the COVID-19 pandemic, which we’ve been covering since before it was even called a pandemic, and how we might report on it. During that meeting, I said something to the effect of, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t even talk about Omicron in two weeks.” How wrong I was.
We’re well into a new year (the third in the COVID era), and the Omicron variant has swept across our pandemic-weary globe, adding to the number of cases and bodies mounted by its viral predecessors. Hospitals around the world scrambled to treat patients with COVID-19 in early 2022 while providing much-needed, and in some cases long-delayed, medical care for other illnesses. Omicron was the dominant variant in the US at the end of 2021, just weeks after the first US case was reported on December 1. And according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Omicron accounts for 100% of COVID-19 cases among Americans as of this writing in early March.
As we discussed Omicron at our press briefing in November, scientists were just beginning to understand the new variant, its behavior in human populations, and its similarities and differences to the highly virulent Delta variant, which has dominated infections for much of the last year. At that time, researchers were reporting that Omicron seemed less harsh than Delta. Meanwhile, some other variants we thought were going to support quickly fell apart. These factors contributed to my flawed reasoning that Omicron would likely be a flash in the pan, out of the news cycle in no time.
After four months and dozens of articles published by The scientist and other outlets, we know a little about Omicron. The variant appears to cause less severe disease than Delta at the population level, but this may be due to the increase in vaccinations that occurred between the respective waves of the two variants, rather than the intrinsic properties of the viruses. The researchers also determined that the increased transmissibility of Omicron is likely due to two properties of the variant: it spreads much faster through the bronchi than the Delta variant, and it is more effective at evading immune protection against vaccines. or earlier infections than earlier variants.
Now, a subvariant of Omicron, BA.2, has emerged that currently accounts for more than 8% of SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States. Nevertheless, the number of cases has dropped dramatically and we seem to be coming out of the Omicron wave. As it declines, state, local, and school mask mandates are being lifted, and the CDC announced in late February that healthy people living in communities with low or moderate levels of COVID-19 can give up wearing masks in most public places. Lest I repeat my mistaken hope that the release of one variant doesn’t necessarily mean the rise of the next, I temper my optimism with a healthy dose of caution.
Certainly, as we begin to glimpse a post-pandemic world, new variants of the virus will continue to emerge and spread. Perhaps the disease that has so drastically altered the course of Earth’s history over the past two-plus years will become endemic, taking hold as an unfortunate feature of the human experience like countless other diseases and Pathogens. This may mean that we gradually become accustomed to COVID-19, so that its presence will become less disruptive to our economies, our politics and our relationships – to our lives – than it has been so far. But that does not mean that we should adopt a posture of complacency.
For my part, I will no longer dismiss variants like lightning in the global panorama. The trick now will be to balance appropriate levels of vigilance and caution with a sense of hope that our world will slowly adapt to the presence of COVID-19. At this point, envisioning such a world seems difficult but not impossible. For me, accomplishing this mental feat involves first letting go of the dream I (and perhaps some of you) clung to as the reality of a pandemic-ravaged planet really sank in: that one day we would be rid of this disease.