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ENDEMIC OR PANDEMIC

Omicron has completely outpaced the delta variant in the US

An illustration of syringe against a background reading omicron sars-cov-2
Reuters/Dado Ruvic
Has Omicron hastened the transition from pandemic to endemic?
  • Priyanka Vora
By Priyanka Vora

AUDIENCE EDITOR

Published Last updated

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 99.5% of all covid-19 cases in the US are now omicron. The CDC tracks the proportion of variants circulating in the community, and while new covid-19 cases have dropped, the US  is averaging about 2,000 deaths per day.

Omicron is far less deadly than its predecessors but its hyper-transmissibility leads to an increased number of people getting infected with the variant resulting in more hospitalizations and deaths. It has quickly evolved to near-total dominance.

How likely is the possibility of super variants such as deltacron 

When omicron hit communities already plagued by the delta variant, the medical community feared the possibility of what they call a “recombination event”.  Recombinant forms of viruses can arise when multiple variants of the virus are circulating in the community simultaneously.

Deborah H Fuller, a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies coronavirus and vaccines, explains that recombination events are rare, but theoretically possible.

“A recombination event is when both viruses infect the same cell, which is rare,” Fuller told Quartz. “The variants tend to out-compete one another which reduces the possibility of a recombination.”

Researchers have also found that delta and omicron evolve in different parts of the lung, making it even more difficult for a recombination event to occur. With omicron replacing the delta variant in the community, the odds are against a wave of “deltacron”.

“A recombination event to produce such a virus requires both viruses to enter into the same cell. While it’s still possible as long as both are in circulation, with fewer and fewer delta infections, this certainly reduces the probability,” says Fuller.

Has omicron hastened the end of the pandemic? 

Studies show that omicron is four times more transmissible than the delta variant. Some experts predict that omicron could be the last variant with such hyper-transmissibility.

“Omicron is going to be dominant in the foreseeable future but the only caveat is there is a more transmissible variant with increasing immune evasion properties to outweigh our natural defenses either from the vaccine or the previous infection, but that still seems to be a highly unlikely scenario,” Sumit Chanda, infectious disease researcher from the Scripps Research Department of Immunology and Microbiology, told Quartz.

In the short term, it is bad news given the high hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among unvaccinated populations. But in the long term, Chanda is confident that once we get past the current surge, the world might see only one or two new variants of coronavirus from now, leading us to an endemic virus causing flare-ups among unvaccinated populations.

“We are getting to a point where we are cornering the virus genetically, trying to balance its ability to enter cells, evade the immune response, and become transmissible,” Chanda says.

With the exception of measles, the world hasn’t seen a virus with such levels of transmissibility: “It will be very difficult for the virus to further evolve to a point at which it has a clear advantage.”

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