It might sound difficult to find an upside to the rise of the new Omicron COVID variant. After all, this is a virus that experts initially warned might be “worse … than anything else about,” and when they’re saying that 23 months into a pandemic that has so far claimed more than 5 million lives worldwide you know things must be serious.
But according to a preprint paper (yet to be peer-reviewed) submitted to MedRxiv this week by researchers at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in South Africa, the Omicron variant may be just the piece of good luck we’ve been waiting for – at least in the long term.
“We studied people who were infected with Omicron close to when they had symptoms and about 2 weeks later,” explained AHRI virologist and study lead Alex Sigal in a series of tweets about the study.
As expected, the team found increased numbers of neutralizing antibodies against the Omicron variant in the patients after recovery. But what was interesting was what else they found: “the same people – especially those who were vaccinated – developed enhanced immunity to the Delta variant,” said Sigal.
Why is that important? Well, before Omicron came along, the Delta variant accounted for almost all COVID-19 cases across the world – and that was a big problem. Coming down with Delta is more than twice as likely to result in hospitalization or death compared to other strains, according to some estimates, and hospitals across the US were already having to ration care thanks to limited resources.
In fact, that was one of the main reasons that Omicron was initially so concerning. Even compared to Delta, the new variant has a huge number of mutations, making it incredibly transmissible and good – though not perfect – at evading antibody protection from both vaccines and previous infections by other variants.
Basically, if Omicron turned out to cause as severe an illness as Delta as well, then things could get really bad, really quickly.
But then, the first pieces of good news started coming through. Preliminary results – as well as anecdotal evidence from doctors on the ground – seemed to suggest that Omicron caused a milder version of COVID-19 than other variants. If the results from this new study by Sigal’s team prove to be accurate, therefore, it could mean that the pandemic is likely to become way more manageable, as the less severe strain out-competes its more deadly sibling.
“If, as it currently looks like from the South African experience, Omicron is less pathogenic, then this will help push Delta out, as it should decrease the likelihood that someone infected with Omicron will get re-infected with Delta,” Sigal wrote. “If that's true, then the disruption COVID-19 has caused in our lives may become less.”
Once again, it’s important to note that these are very preliminary results – not yet peer-reviewed, and based on only 13 individuals (“because of the holiday period,” Sigal told the New York Times. “Nobody really wants to stick around and be part of a study.”) But it does echo what other researchers are seeing: in London, for example, where Omicron already makes up 90 percent of COVID-19 cases, the variant “[arrived] and [grew] rapidly,” London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine epidemiologist Carl Pearson told the NYT, “and the Delta trend switches to declining.”
And even if the study and its conclusions are unimpeachable, we still can’t know for certain what it means for the future – although Sigal has some ideas.
“I’d bet we can rule out that it’s trending to a place where it locks into a single variety that’s long-term immunizing and becomes a childhood infection like measles,” he told the NYT. “But that’s … possible.”
Alternatively, he said, COVID-19 may end up mimicking one of two diseases: the flu, where one seasonal variant replaces another each year – a hypothetical scenario that has been seriously suggested by some researchers already – or dengue fever, where several variants all coexist, making people sick every few years or so from one strain or another.
Either way, Omicron’s high transmissibility means it is still likely to cause a massive surge of cases wherever it pops up – so you should carry on wearing masks and getting booster shots. But long term, this could mean a future with fewer hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 – and ultimately, a quicker return to something approaching “normal life.”
“Omicron is likely to push Delta out,” Sigal told the NYT. “Maybe pushing Delta out is actually a good thing, and we’re looking at something we can live with more easily and that will disrupt us less than the previous variants.”