‘Omicron Won’t Be the Last Variant’: Experts Say Pandemic’s End Not Yet in Sight

Israeli health experts think it is too early to determine that omicron will make COVID endemic, and that antibodies from the less virulent variant won't necessarily provide long-term protection

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
Corona testing center in Tel Aviv in January
Corona testing center in Tel Aviv in JanuaryCredit: Hadad Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The rapid spread of the omicron variant has raised hopes that this is the final chord of the coronavirus pandemic. The basis for this hope is the idea that widespread exposure to the virus – in a particularly infectious but less deadly variant – can create a broad protective umbrella over large parts of the population, which, along with vaccines, will make the virus endemic.

It will continue to circulate, but as a result of increased immunity as a result of vaccines and infection, there will be much less transmission, severe illness and death, and life can return to something resembling the pre-pandemic normal.

Although the director for the World Health Organization in Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, said it was “plausible” that Europe is moving toward a “kind of pandemic endgame,” he and Israeli medical experts cautioned that mass infection will not end the pandemic.

Kluge said this week that omicron could infect 60 percent of Europeans by March, and when the current surge in illness ebbs, “there will be for quite some weeks and months a global immunity,” as a result of a combination of vaccinations and antibodies in recovered COVID-19 patients.

Kluge further told AFP that this situation should last until the end of the year – by which time, he said, COVID-19 might return, but not necessarily as a pandemic. However, he stressed that caution is still necessary despite the optimism, due to the virus’s ability to mutate. He noted that "endemic means ... that it is possible to predict what's going to happen. This virus has surprised [us] more than once so we have to be very careful."

Pedestrians wearing masks in Jerusalem, last week.

Kluge’s remarks made waves among medical experts in Israel and elsewhere. Dr. Dorit Nitzan, regional emergency director at the WHO Europe, who was present at Kluge’s interview, said that the message taken from his remarks was distorted and is at odds with the truth.

“At no point in the interview did Kluge condition exiting pandemic status on mass omicron infection," Nitzan said. "We do not think that mass infection is the solution or that it will bring about the end of the pandemic." She added that it was possible that this year will see the virus become endemic, “but the road there should be taken with measured steps. The road is based on raising vaccination rates around the world, monitoring illness, testing, and lots of personal responsibility.”

Nitzan estimated that “omicron won’t be the last variant,” noting that the current levels of infection have a price, as well: “We’re seeing many hospitalizations, including a rise in children's hospitalizations, and many at-risk populations are paying a heavy price.” She stressed that the WHO believes that once 70 to 80 percent of the world’s population is vaccinated, the focus can shift to resuming normalcy.

“Eighty-five percent of Africa’s population has yet to receive a first vaccine dose, so we’re asking countries that have accelerated the vaccination process, like Israel, to take stock and make it easier for everyone by directing vaccines to under-vaccinated countries,” said Nitzan.

Prof. Cyril Cohen, head of the immunotherapy lab at Bar-Ilan University, also believes talk of ending the pandemic is premature. He pointed out the emergence of a new variant, BA2, “a relative of omicron,” of which some 100 cases have been discovered in Israel. At this point, there is no indication that BA2 behaves differently from omicron.

Cohen concedes that exposure to the variant may improve the body’s immunity to future variants, but “it’s not something that’s certain.” Explaining the difference between endemic and pandemic states, Cohen gave the flu as an example. “The flu kills a quarter million to half a million people around the world every year, but it’s endemic. It’s not everywhere year-round. And flu has better seasons and worse seasons, better and worse vaccines, and once in a while comes a violent strain, like bird or swine flu, turning it from endemic to pandemic,” Cohen explained.

People stand in line to get tested for COVID in Tel Aviv, earlier this month.

Therefore it is unclear to what extent broad and accumulated exposure to different variants provides a defensive barrier capable of halting the pandemic. Cohen added that “repeated exposure or infection to different variants of the virus supposedly increases the immune system’s ‘target bank,’ but that doesn’t mean it can always completely prevent the disease.”

Dr. Oren Kobiler, virology expert at Tel Aviv University, said that the level of protection promised by omicron infection will not persist for a prolonged period. “No doubt, those who are vaccinated or recovering and contract omicron have milder illness in most cases. At the same time, just last week 15,000 people died of COVID in the U.S., where it’s mostly omicron, and Denmark, which already had an omicron wave, is now experiencing a BA2 wave.”

Kobiler added that even should omicron decline, the deadlier delta variant is expected to make a comeback. “Some experts say the omicron doesn’t even make delta disappear. It had declined, but not disappeared completely, and once omicron is gone chances are not great that the protection we got from the omicron will hold against delta.”

And yet, according to Kobiler, eventually COVID-19 will become seasonal, like the flu. “The question is when, he says, “and another question is – will omicron make it happen? You have to be very optimistic to say that, and I don’t see the data to support it.”

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