A nurse checks on IV pumps attached to a COVID-19 patient at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego.
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Health & Wellness

Will another devastating variant follow Omicron? Experts debate COVID-19 future, ‘endgame’

There remains considerable debate about the pandemic’s trajectory, but scientists generally say it’s too early to see the finish line for the COVID-19 pandemic.

As coronavirus transmission rates drop across California, indicating that the surge spawned by Omicron is flattening, many are wondering whether the latest variant will be the last surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There remains considerable debate around that question. Some experts are loath to make forecasts, given that prior predictions of the pandemic’s conclusion haven’t proved true.

But one thing is clear: Scientists generally say it’s too early to declare an “endgame” for COVID-19.

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“There are different scenarios for how the pandemic could play out and how the acute phase could end. But it’s dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant or that we are in the endgame,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said Monday. “On the contrary, globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.

“It’s true that we will be living with COVID for the foreseeable future and that we will need to learn to manage it through a sustained and integrated system for acute respiratory diseases” to help prepare for future pandemics, he added. “But learning to live with COVID cannot mean that we give this virus a free ride. It cannot mean that we accept almost 50,000 deaths a week from a preventable and treatable disease.”

More to come?

Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, is among those who say we need to be prepared for more surprises after Omicron’s surge fades.

In a blog post published Saturday, Topol cautioned against thinking that the drop in Omicron cases means the 2-year-old pandemic will be over soon.

If that happens, that’s terrific, he wrote.

But “it seems quite unlikely — with so much of the world’s population, especially in low and middle income countries, [having] yet to be vaccinated,” Topol wrote. “Omicron’s future trajectory isn’t clear, and we cannot rule out second surges of Omicron at this point in places around the world.”

It would be foolish to predict that high infection rates of Omicron worldwide would lead to COVID-19 becoming a disease we can all be less concerned about, Topol added.

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Growing resistance?

It’s possible that high infection rates could bring about a new variant that could be more resistant to existing immunity and vaccines. And that’s why it’s so important to make progress on a vaccine that can work on all coronaviruses; oral and nasal vaccines that can help block transmission by building immunity in our mucous; and to ramp up mass production of anti-COVID-19 pills that are probably variant-proof, Topol wrote.

“If there’s one thing we learned about predicting the path of SARS-CoV-2, it’s that it’s unpredictable. So we shouldn’t plan on a rosy picture,” Topol wrote.

Others, however, suggest the end of the pandemic is near.

Between the end of November and the end of March, more than 50% of the world’s population will become infected by Omicron, Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, wrote in a commentary for the journal The Lancet.

New variants will emerge, and some might be more severe than Omicron, he wrote. Immunity will wane over time, and countries should expect that winters will be a time for increased viral transmission, he added.

But the impacts of future coronavirus transmission on health “will be less because of broad previous exposure to the virus, regularly adapted vaccines to new antigens or variants, the advent of antivirals, and the knowledge that the vulnerable can protect themselves during future waves when needed by using high-quality masks and physical distancing,” he wrote. “COVID-19 will become another recurrent disease that health systems and societies will have to manage.”

“The era of extraordinary measures by government and societies to control SARS-CoV-2 transmission will be over,” Murray predicted. “After the Omicron wave, COVID-19 will return but the pandemic will not.”

More surges?

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University’s School of Public Health, tweeted that the U.S. should be prepared for another summer surge in the South as the weather warms and people head indoors, and a surge again next winter in the North, as temperatures drop.

“Will there be another variant? I suspect yes,” Jha wrote.

Jha suggested that public health restrictions, including mask mandates, be relaxed as case numbers fall and hospital capacity improves.

“During future surges, we may need to ask people to pull back or mask up again,” Jha said. “Preserving people’s willingness to do things is critical.”

In between surges, Jha said, preparations should continue. He echoed Topol’s call for vaccines that can cover all coronaviruses or create better immunity in people’s mucous. He also advocated for a commitment by the U.S. government to buy and stockpile billions of rapid tests so there will be adequate supply for the next surge and the manufacture of a huge supply of anti-COVID-19 pills.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.