Omicron: The Newest Frontier in the Fight Against COVID-19

The emergence of a much more infectious variant of COVID-19 changed the course of the pandemic for the worse.


Mufid Majnun / Unsplash

A medical staff member tests potential COVID-19 samples in a hospital.

On January 12th, 2022, the United States broke the global record for the most COVID-19 cases in a single day, with more than 1.3 million new confirmed cases. The number crushed the previous record – which was also set in the U.S. – by roughly 400,000 cases. Both statistics were captured only a week apart  — which was unusual, even for pandemic standards. The culprit? The Omicron variant. 

The concluding months of 2021 were predicted to be the turning points of the COVID-19 pandemic. The week of December 4th, 2021 had a weekly average of roughly two million vaccine doses administered daily in the U.S. – the highest it had been in half a year. Through September 2021 to the beginning of December 2021, global cases had seemingly flattened to a manageable weekly average of around 500,000 cases each day. The situation shaped up to be what an optimist would call a “silver lining” or what any person who has lived through the 2-year-long pandemic would call “the calm before the storm.”

All hope of a swift “end to the pandemic” was extinguished on November 24th, 2021 when a group of scientists in South Africa reported “unusual features in samples they were testing for the coronavirus,” according to CNN. The abnormality was a mutation of COVID-19 – and the beginning of one of the fastest spread of a disease ever, according to some experts.

“When SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) started spreading among humans, it slowly started mutating. These mutations were random, but … sometimes they gave the mutant viruses an advantage over the original virus,” explains A.J. te Velthuis, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. “Because the mutants had these advantages, they outcompeted the original SARS-CoV-2 and infected more humans. The Omicron strain is one of these SARS-CoV-2 mutants and currently the most successful at infecting humans.”

“On November 26th, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified a new variant, B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern and named it Omicron,” said a spokesman for the CDC. “As of December 1st, 2021, Omicron has been identified in the United States.”

Within a week of the variant’s discovery, it had breached the United States. In less than three weeks, it became the dominant strain in the U.S. and accounted for 73 percent of all new U.S. cases. Globally, Omicron was responsible for the majority of 15 million cases in a single week.

“There are lots of hypotheses as to why [Omicron was able to spread so efficiently], but none have yet been proven,” said Matthew P. Fox, Professor of Epidemiology at Boston University. “All we know for sure now is that it does transmit much faster [than other variants].”

“[Viruses] are in a race to infect the next person, so the fastest and best spreading virus wins,” said Professor Velthuis. “A key advantage is gained by changing the proteins (i.e. spike) that reside on the surface of a virus, because those proteins are seen and checked by our immune system. As SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) is relatively new to us, it seems to have a lot of ways to alter itself and adapt to us.”

The Omicron variant is a representation of how COVID-19 has been able to adapt and become more efficient at infecting humans. “But eventually [COVID-19] will reach something of an equilibrium and change more slowly, in a ladder-like, almost predictable fashion. It then becomes like a common cold – more mild and less dangerous,” noted Professor Velthuis. 

Although it is foreseen that this pandemic will eventually “stabilize” and become an endemic, or a flu-like situation, that could be far away – and Omicron  serves as a reminder to that. The wide-spread infection that Omicron has caused could lead to many different outcomes.

The novelty and scale of this topic makes creating a definitive answer difficult. Factors such as vaccination rates, population density, and viral contagiousness all play a role in forecasting the “future of the pandemic.” Omicron has been shown to create less severe symptoms than previous variants, though it is more transmissible. This implies the desired “herd immunity” – where enough people are infected and become immune that the virus slows down – could be achieved. The opposite, where a “worse” strain emerges, is also a possibility.

“[Omicron] could mean a near end [to the pandemic] because another variant would need to outcompete omicron ([which] seems hard),” says Kevin Bakker, Assistant Research Scientist of Epidemiology at Michigan University. “It may drive itself extinct by infecting so many people so fast there won’t be a reservoir of susceptible individuals, or it may give us false hope and not provide lasting immunity where individuals can be infected multiple times.”

While uncertainty remains, and likely will remain for a while, specialists can formulate a rough idea of what will happen using previous pandemics and virological knowledge. “My guess is there is at least one more variant in the future, likely more,” said Mr. Bakker. “Yes, it is likely that more variants will continue to emerge,” Professor Velthuis agreed. 

Despite the fact that Omicron and other COVID-19 variants will continue to delay the long-sought end to this pandemic, not all hope is lost. Global vaccination rates are steadily increasing, and the climax of COVID-19 cases experienced in the United States in early January are declining rapidly. “We hope this [spread of COVID-19] will also create some population level immunity that will slow things in the future,” said Professor Fox. “So I am cautiously optimistic that things are going to move into a more stable period over the next few months.”

Omicron is another obstacle in the global fight against COVID-19. Though drawbacks against COVID-19 have been faced before, and will likely emerge again, the global community’s continual effort to control this virus will pay off in the long-term.

“We hope this [spread of COVID-19] will also create some population level immunity that will slow things in the future. So I am cautiously optimistic that things are going to move into a more stable period over the next few months,” said Matthew P. Fox, Professor of Epidemiology at Boston University.