Is Omicron as contagious as it gets? Researchers are setting up their best and worst case scenarios for the future of the virus


  • Omicron raises questions about how much more contagious or dangerous coronavirus can have.
  • In the best case of scientists, the virus can become endemic by the end of the decade.

For almost six months, Delta seemed able to overcome everything else coronavirus variants so much so that the researchers wondered whether the virus had reached its peak its ability to infect humans.

In November, Omicron threw out the scientists: After driving cases up in South Africa, it spread to dozens of countries apparently overnight. Early laboratory studies now suggest that Omicron increases the risk of reinfection compared to other strains and is better than the original virus at evading antibodies from two vaccine doses.

Now researchers are wondering: Is Omicron as contagious as it gets?

There is no easy answer, but scientists have a few suggestions on the future of the virus. At best, they say, coronavirus will become endemic, meaning cases will continue at low levels, perhaps resulting in seasonal outbreaks of relatively mild disease. In a mid-term scenario, the virus could become even better at resisting vaccines and exposing more vaccinated people to serious illness. And in a scary scenario, the virus could recombine with another coronavirus to form a more deadly hybrid variant.

Some scientists do not bet on the final result.

The virus “seems unlikely to do much worse than what we’re already dealing with,” Vaughn Cooper, director of the Center for Evolutionary Biology and Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, told Insider.

Still, he added, “I keep getting fooled.”

The best case scenario: The virus becomes a ‘seasonal irritation’

People take COVID-19 test at a pop-up test site in New York City on December 7, 2021.Reuters / Brendan McDermid

Virus has one main goal: survival. Researchers generally agree that the best way for the current coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to survive long-term is to become endemic in the population, just as influenza or other human coronaviruses have evolved.

Becoming more deadly can put the virus at a disadvantage as people have to stay alive to keep infecting others. And because the virus is already capable of transmitting, future variants may not need to drastically change how the virus behaves.

“Are we playing whack-a-mole forever with SARS-CoV-2? No. It’s going to be an endemic coronavirus that will be a seasonal irritation,” Cooper said, adding: “It’s going to happen this decade, maybe before the end of this decade. “

While Cooper believes some years will have worse coronavirus outbreaks than others, he generally expects vaccines will continue to ward off serious illness. This is because antibodies are not the body’s only form of protection: White blood cells known as T cells and B cells also remember foreign invaders, often for longer periods than antibodies.

“One thing I’m sure of is that my three doses of the original vaccine have created a diversity of cellular immune responses that will protect me from the virus several years from now,” Cooper said. “I want to bet good money on it. I can get sick, but it’s not going to make me really sick because my T cells and B cells have seen something similar before.”

Mid-term scenario: Vaccines become less effective as the virus develops

Is Omicron as contagious as it gets?  Researchers are setting up their best and worst case scenarios for the future of the virus
Jolanta Gawlik, left, gives Juliana Cepeda Pfizer the COVID-19 vaccine in New York.Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

The coronavirus can eventually encounter a limit to how much it can spread when everyone who can be infected has some degree of immunity. At that point, the virus may need to get better at bypassing the body’s immune system – whether from vaccines or natural infection – in order to stay alive.

“The easiest way for the virus to cause new epidemics is to evade immunity over time,” said Adam Kucharski, a mathematical epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. told Nature In December. “It’s similar to what we see with seasonal coronavirus.”

In that case, widespread immunity could put pressure on the virus to form new variants that make vaccines less and less effective.

“The evolutionary forces that can undermine vaccination – they are coming,” Andrew Read, who studies development of infectious diseases at Pennsylvania State University, Insider said. The virus, he added, “is far from having exploited all of its own mutation potential.”

The worst case scenario: The virus combines with another coronavirus inside an animal and then spills back into humans

Is Omicron as contagious as it gets?  Researchers are setting up their best and worst case scenarios for the future of the virus
A white-tailed deer in Pineland Park, Pennsylvania, November 2, 2021.Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle / Getty Images

As coronavirus continues to spread widely, it is possible that an animal could become infected with two coronaviruses at once: the current virus, SARS-CoV-2, plus another coronavirus found in wildlife. In a nightmare scenario, these viruses can form a hybrid variant that infects the human population and is more deadly than its predecessors.

“We have an awful lot of SARS-2 around us, so the potential for something to spread into humanity and recombine with SARS-2 is pretty high,” Read said.

As early as this century, three coronaviruses capable of causing serious illness – SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 – have been spread from animals to humans. Coronavirus also has one high capacity to recombine, said Read. ONE can study found evidence of a recombinant coronavirus in an inpatient with pneumonia. The study’s researchers traced the virus’ origin to coronavirus in cats and dogs. Although scientists are still investigating the origin of SARS-CoV-2, a December 2020 survey suggested that the virus originated from a recombination of bat and pangolin coronavirus.

So the possibility of another contagious incident “seems pretty worrying to me,” Read said.

But Cooper warned that it is rare for a human or animal to become infected with two viruses at once.

“We should be worried about that, but where does that stand among our concerns? It’s still pretty low,” he said, calling recombination “more of a long-term concern.”

“Most recombination events fail because the parts do not work well together,” Cooper said. “But if we’re learned anything about this pandemic, when you have really huge numbers, really weird things happen.”

Both Cooper and Read pointed to the white-tailed deer as a species to follow closely, after one the coronavirus outbreak tore through the U.S. white-tailed deer population last winter.

“There are white-tailed deer everywhere in my neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh, and I can not help but look at them as if everyone has had or right now has SARS-CoV-2,” Cooper said. “The virus also develops in them. We know. How does it develop? We do not know.”

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