It may be the Omicron variant — not any particular government policy or public health strategy — that ultimately “shuts down” the COVID-19 pandemic, according to experts.
There’s ample evidence that Omicron is a milder strain of COVID-19 than previous versions, such as Delta. Several doctors and health experts who spoke with the Daily Caller said that a more infectious, less deadly form of COVID-19 spreading rapidly throughout the population could ultimately result in a post-pandemic state of widespread natural immunity.
Researchers have found that Omicron is far less likely to put someone in the hospital or be fatal than earlier strains of COVID-19. It’s also highly contagious, leading to skyrocketing record case numbers in the U.S. and elsewhere. In addition to almost two-thirds of Americans who are fully vaccinated, any individual who has survived a bout with COVID-19 has been conferred some level of natural immunity that will lessen their chance of reinfection or serious illness in the future.
While most natural immunity studies and research occurred before Omicron was dominant, there’s no reason to believe this variant won’t confer strong levels of protection to survivors as well, Dr. Martin Kulldorff, an epidemiologist and former professor at the Harvard School of Medicine, told the Daily Caller.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that we will have a problem with Omicron when it comes to natural immunity. I don’t see any data to that effect.”
The CDC starts to acknowledge reality, one piece at a time. What excuse is there now to not consider prior infection in vaccine mandates? https://t.co/kiTEOwY6dT
— Jay Bhattacharya (@DrJBhattacharya) January 19, 2022
Kulldorff and others emphasized that, because Omicron is so contagious, virtually everyone is likely to catch it at some point and thus almost everyone will gain natural immunity.
“Whether you’re vaccinated or not, even if you’re vaccinated, you will eventually get COVID,” Kulldorff said.
This combination of factors may lead to COVID-19 becoming endemic, and a state where case numbers are not connected to frequent surges in hospitalizations and deaths as virtually the entire population has antibodies, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya told the Daily Caller. (RELATED: With Omicron, A Key COVID-19 Metric Has Become Highly Misleading)
“Omicron has certainly changed the conversation about COVID very substantially. Since it is so much more transmissible than Delta and also seems to produce a less severe disease, it has made it clear to the laptop class professionals that they cannot hide from the virus forever,” Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, said. “The end state of the COVID pandemic involves a decoupling of cases from severe disease, and Omicron has hastened the arrival of that end state.”
Bhattacharya and Kulldorff are among a group of scientists who have argued throughout the entire pandemic that this was the inevitable endgame of COVID-19. Early on in the crisis, they helped pen the Great Barrington Declaration, which argued that society should take steps to protect the truly vulnerable from the virus, such as the elderly and immunocompromised, while healthy, low-risk individuals should largely go about their lives knowing that they would eventually gain natural immunity at relatively low cost.
“I believe it vindicates the Great Barrington Declaration’s strategy of focused protection. If we had followed it, we would have shielded better older people from COVID, and younger people would have suffered much less from the lockdown harms that we imposed on them,” Bhattacharya told the Daily Caller.
Dr. Cody Meissner, a professor of pediatrics and infectious disease expert at Tufts University School of Medicine, shared a similar belief. “The combination of the vaccine or actual infection has resulted in very high rates, probably greater than 90% of the population, has immunity,” he said in an interview with the Daily Caller.
“I think we can eliminate severe disease, but it’s like the common cold. It’s gonna be another one of the common colds. There are four seasonal coronaviruses that we’ve known about for years, and I think this is gonna become the fifth seasonal coronavirus,” he said.
President Joe Biden said he would “shut down the virus,” but the Omicron surge has brought about the highest case numbers America has seen during the pandemic, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of COVID-19 under his watch. It may be the case, these experts say, that no government policy can shut down the virus, but natural evolution of COVID-19 into less deadly, more contagious strains will get America to a point where it can live with it.
“Omicron is extremely transmissible, resulting in a lot of mild breakthrough infections among the vaccinated (even if boosted). However, Omicron is more mild, likely because it can’t infect lung cells very well as shown by multiple studies,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at the University of California San Francisco. “So, unless we have a new variant that is more virulent or evades vaccines (which can occur if we don’t work hard on global vaccine equity), it looks like we could be in the endgame phase of COVID in the U.S.”
Dr. Nicole Saphier, an assistant professor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College and Fox News contributor, agreed. “It just may be that omicron is what eventually shuts down the virus and allows the country and world to regain a sense of normalcy,” she said.
“A less severe variant coupled with high prevalence of natural and vaccine induced immunity means drastically reduced hospitalizations and deaths. Allowing the Omicron variant to spread will squeeze out the residual delta variant, further reducing severe illness.”
Omicron waves in other countries have been shorter and less deadly than prior waves. In South Africa, where the variant was identified and one of the first places it became dominant, the peak in cases subsided after about six weeks. Deaths and hospitalizations increased, but by a far smaller amount than the previous three major waves of cases in the country.
The cumulative numbers for Omicron will all keep climbing for some time yet, especially deaths, but it’s already very clear that the Omicron wave will end up being South Africa’s least lethal, possibly by a large margin. pic.twitter.com/94xeYloBUt
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) January 20, 2022
Based on that evidence, and the fact that deaths in the U.S. are currently not surging nearly as rapidly as cases have, there may not be reason to panic about Omicron. Many state and local governments have reinstated policies like mask and vaccine mandates, but such a rush to take steps backward because of this new variant may be overkill, experts said. (RELATED: Amid Omicron Wave, Some Democrats Change Tune On Mandates And Lockdowns)
“The key thing is to not obsess about cases, but to make sure that we minimize mortality,” said Kulldorff.
“While the science supports the United States is on the right path, the continued media induced hysteria and poor messaging by public health officials prolong the state of emergency,” Saphier said.
Gandhi said people may be conditioned to panic about a new variant, even if it ultimately gets us closer to the end of the pandemic. “People are responding with a lot of panic to this particular variant, although it is more mild. I think this may be due to PTSD from the other phases of the pandemic,” she said.
She also emphasized that with more treatment options, such as Pfizer’s new antiviral pill Paxlovid, the virus will become even more manageable like other seasonal illnesses.
Another seasonal illness is exactly what Meissner said COVID-19 is likely to become. People will have to accept that COVID-19 is here to stay, but that between vaccines, a milder variant, natural immunity and more therapeutics, society’s attainable goal should be to eliminate severe illness and death, not eradicate the virus altogether.
“We’re vaccinating not to prevent infection, and that’s why I think when people say we’re going to eliminate this virus, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. I think this virus is going to be around for a while, and what we want to do is reduce the number of hospitalizations and severe illness.”