Omicron and the Future of Coronavirus

Illustration of close view of the omicron variant. Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Illustration of close view of the omicron variant. Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Alexander Chen , Managing Editor

Originating in southern Africa and accounting for more than 73% of all new US cases during Christmas week, the Omicron variant of coronavirus is on track to replace Delta as the world’s dominant coronavirus strain. Preliminary studies indicate that Omicron hits less severely than Delta, but spreads much more quickly. Britain’s public health agency concluded that, based on UK cases, individuals infected with the omicron variant are 50 to 70% less likely to need hospitalization compared to individuals infected with the delta variant. 

Unfortunately, major vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, J&J, etc.) appear to be less effective against the Omicron variant. The new variant has more mutations in its spike protein than any previous variant, allowing the virus to evade antibodies more easily. However, the vaccine still helps, and people with booster shots are better protected against Omicron than those without.

Omicron’s contagious nature could cause surges and overwhelm healthcare systems. Already, hundreds of Christmas flights have been canceled and many European countries have reinstated mandates. US officials warn that Omicron could easily swamp hospitals, which are still dealing with Delta holiday surges. Moreover, many hospitals are low on staff, as burned-out employees have been leaving the healthcare industry in droves.

On a side note, how do scientists identify new variants? A technique called genomic sequencing, if you recall from your biology class, allows labs to examine virus genes from positive PCR tests. Significant mutations indicate a new variant—in Omicron’s case, a missing S-gene.

Coronavirus variants will continue to evolve after Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron. In fact, SARS-CoV-2 is not the first coronavirus to evolve amongst humans. Four other seasonal coronaviruses have been causing mild colds in people for decades, and future SARS-CoV-2 variants may join these four, evolving from a pandemic to an endemic that comes back every year. Now if strains became endemic, as 89% of scientists in a Nature poll predict, they would likely decrease in danger—but they would probably never be eliminated. A combination of innate immunity and vaccines would lessen the severity of the endemic strains until they became acceptably mild.

How is Archmere doing with Omicron? We did see a surge in cases after the first two weeks back from Christmas, and many students chose to go virtual. Some Delaware schools have partially gone virtual or taken half-days largely due to a lack of staff. While we often focus on student cases, an infected teacher is much more consequential as they cannot teach entire classes. Thankfully, most schools are still thriving in-person, including Archmere.