Each infection creates a new ground for the virus to mutate, and omicron is much more contagious than previous variants. Experts don't know what the next variants will look like or how they might shape the pandemic.
Experts don't know what the next variants will look like or how they might shape the pandemic, but they say there's no guarantee that omicron's successor products will cause milder disease or that current vaccines will work against them.
"The faster the Omicron spreads, the more opportunities there are for mutation that potentially leads to more variants," said Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University.
Ever since Omicron emerged in mid-November, it has engulfed the world like fire from the dry grass. Studies show that the variant is at least twice as contagious as the delta and at least four times more contagious than the original version of the virus.
Omicron is more likely than delta to reinfect individuals with formerly COVID-19 and cause “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated individuals, while also attacking unvaccinated individuals. The World Health Organization reported a record 3 million new cases of COVID-9 for the week of January 55-15, an increase of 19 percent from the previous week.
In addition to keeping relatively healthy people out of work and school, the variant's ease of spread makes the virus more likely to be transmitted and remain in people with weakened immune systems, giving it more time to develop strong mutations.
Infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. "Longer, persistent infections that appear to be the most likely breeding ground for new variants," said Stuart Campbell Ray. “Only when you have a very common infection will you provide the opportunity for it to happen.”
Because Omicron causes less severe disease than delta, hope has sparked hope that its behavior may eventually be the start of a trend that makes the virus milder, like the common cold.
Experts say this is a possibility given that viruses don't spread well if they kill their hosts too quickly. But viruses don't always get less deadly over time.
As an example, if infected people initially develop mild symptoms, spread the virus by interacting with others, then become very ill later on, he may also achieve his main goal. “People wondered if the virus would evolve into softness. But there is no particular reason for him to do this," he said. "I don't think we can be sure that the virus will become less lethal over time."
Getting progressively better at getting rid of immunity helps a virus survive in the long run. No one was immune when SARS-CoV-2 first struck. But infections and vaccines provide at least some immunity to most of the world. kazannagged, so the virus needs to adapt.
There are many possible pathways for evolution. Animals can potentially hatch and release new variants. Pet dogs and cats, deer, and farm-raised mink are just a few of the animals vulnerable to the virus, which could potentially mutate and spread back to humans.
Another potential route: While both the omicron and delta roam, humans can contract double infections, which Ray refers to as "Frankenvariants," which could spawn hybrids with characteristics of both species.
When new variants develop, it's still very difficult to know from genetic traits which ones might arise, the scientists said. For example, the omicron has many more mutations than previous variants, around 30 in the spike protein that allows it to attach to human cells. However, the so-called IHU variant identified in France and tracked by the WHO has 46 mutations and does not appear to have spread much.
To curb the emergence of variants, scientists highlight continuing with public health measures such as masking and vaccination. Experts said that although omicron circumvents immunity better than delta, vaccines still offer protection, and booster vaccines have greatly reduced serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
Anne Thomas, a 64-year-old IT analyst in Westerly, Rhode Island, said she's been fully vaccinated and empowered and is also trying to stay safe by staying mostly at home while her state has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the United States. "I have no doubt that these viruses will continue to mutate, and we will be dealing with this for a very long time."
Ray likened vaccines to armor for humanity, which greatly inhibits viral spread, if not completely stops it. For a virus that spreads exponentially, "anything that prevents transmission can have a huge impact," he said. Also, when vaccinated people get sick, Ray said their illness is usually milder and gets better more quickly, leaving less time for dangerous variants to emerge.
Experts say that as long as global vaccination rates are very low, the virus will not be endemic like the flu. In a recent press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that protecting people from future variants, including those that may be completely resistant to today's vaccines, depends on ending global vaccine inequality.
Tedros said he would like to see 70 percent of people in each country vaccinated by mid-year. According to Johns Hopkins University statistics, there are now dozens of countries where less than a quarter of their population is fully vaccinated. And many people in the United States continue to resist current vaccines.
Toronto's St. Michael's Center for Global Health Research. “These huge unvaccinated areas in the US, Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere are fundamentally different factories,” Prabhat Jha said. “Not being able to do that in global leadership has been a tremendous failure.”
In the meantime, new variants are inevitable, said Louis Mansky, director of the Institute of Molecular Virology at the University of Minnesota.
While there are many unvaccinated people, "the virus is still in control of what's going on," he said.