The relentless global surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant may infect half of the world’s population by March 2022, according to a prominent scientist writing in a major medical journal.
In a commentary published in a peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, outlined his predictions for the next few months: that Omicron’s contagiousness and ubiquity will infect so many people that governments will reevaluate how to react to the virus.
While previous waves of COVID-19 took two to three months to spread through communities and peak before infections began falling, Dr. Murray points out that Omicron’s peak tends to occur three to five weeks after community spread is first detected. This may render many previously reliable pandemic measures less effective under Omicron, as the wave will probably have already passed by the time these solutions are scaled up.
“[T]he transmission intensity of omicron is so high that policy actions—eg, increasing mask use, expanding vaccination coverage in people who have not been vaccinated, or delivering third doses of COVID-19 vaccines—taken in the next weeks will have limited impact on the course of the Omicron wave,” Dr. Murray wrote, later adding that “by the time these interventions are scaled up the omicron wave will be largely over.”
Only in countries where the Omicron wave has not yet started can measures like mask and vaccine mandates be implemented in time to have a substantial effect. But Omicron’s spread across the globe has become so pervasive that there are vanishingly few of those left.
The Omicron variant has now been detected in 145 countries across the world, according to The New York Times’ coronavirus tracker. In the U.S., the strain has spread through all 50 states and Washington D.C.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom, according to Dr. Murray, as Omicron’s lesser severity relative to other strains of the virus will be a driving factor in making COVID-19 a more manageable disease.
“A systematic review based on previous variants suggested that 40% of infections were asymptomatic. Evidence suggests that the proportion of asymptomatic infections is much higher for Omicron, perhaps as high as 80–90%,” Dr. Murray said.
“After the Omicron wave, COVID-19 will return but the pandemic will not,” Dr. Murray wrote.
Dr. Murray’s words come off the heels of increasing cautious optimism that the world is drawing closer to the pandemic’s endemic phase, where COVID-19 will still exist, but as a more regular type of threat. “COVID-19 will become another recurrent disease that health systems and societies will have to manage,” Dr. Murray concludes, adding that “The era of extraordinary measures by government and societies to control SARS-CoV-2 transmission will be over.”
Despite the reduced severity of Omicron infections, Dr. Murray does recognize that the strain’s sheer transmission intensity is currently and will continue to lead to increased hospitalizations and deaths in the short term.
“The massive wave of omicron infections means that hospital admissions are increasing in many countries and will rise to twice or more the number of COVID-19 hospital admissions of past surges in some countries,” Dr. Murray says, also lamenting the higher rate of infection and mandated quarantines suffered by medical workers, placing more strain on medical systems in many countries.
COVID-19 death rates are currently on the rise relative to early January, although they’re nowhere near the peak of last summer’s brutal Delta wave, according to John Hopkins’ coronavirus tracker.
Dr. Murray’s predictions of a forthcoming endemic brought on by Omicron is one that is being embraced by several countries and public figures, a sentiment influenced by growing pandemic fatigue and recovering economies worldwide. However, public health officials continue to warn against the assumption that the pandemic will soon draw to a close.
On Monday, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged governments to continue exercising caution in dealing with COVID-19, Reuters reports, citing the risks of possible future variants that may not be as benign as Omicron.
“It’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant and that we are in the endgame. On the contrary, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.” Tedros said at a WHO executive board meeting.
Omicron has sent global coronavirus cases skyrocketing to over 350 million this week, and as Tedros notes, the virus will have more opportunities than ever to mutate into a new form.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is now entering its third year and we are at a critical juncture,” Tedros said at a news conference Monday. “We must work together to bring the acute phase of this pandemic to an end. We cannot let it continue to drag on, lurching between panic and neglect.”
In an email to Fortune, Dr. Murray agreed with the WHO’s evaluation that governments must remain vigilant, but once again stressed that new pandemic response measures would need to be adopted moving forward, in view of possible future variants. “Some of these variants may be more severe than Omicron. But we can manage them like other diseases such as seasonal flu through the combination of continued vaccination/boosters, scaled up production and access to anti-virals.”
Dr. Murray points out that some countries, including Spain, Italy, England, and Israel, are already beginning to treat the virus as endemic, but emphasizes that doing so does not translate to inaction. “It means treating it like other diseases that require a concerted response. The difference is that mandates and lockdowns are not likely part of the policy response.”
“Part of the difference between my position and WHO’s Director-General is semantic. COVID-19 is not going away, but I believe the emergency phase of the pandemic is ending.”
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